Biogen's new CEO Chris Viehbacher looks to ads, patient outreach to boost promotion of new drugs

Biogen’s new chief executive Chris Viehbacher is already thinking strategically when it comes to drug marketing as he talks up the need to better reach out to patients and “get better” at using ads when it comes to drug promotion.

Viehbacher, who took the CEO role last November from Michel Vounatsos, comes into a Biogen in turmoil. The company has for years been battling generic erosion of its multiple sclerosis (MS) business and had hoped to create a new blockbuster Alzheimer’s disease drug in Aduhelm, but reimbursement barriers alongside safety and efficacy woes all but ended its commercial life last year.

Speaking during Biogen’s earnings call, Viehbacher, formerly head of French Big Pharma Sanofi, said it was clear that while Aduhelm is no longer is a core part of the business, there were still two big drugs at the forefront of his mind: the company's experimental depression drug zuranolone and the approved rare disease therapy Spinraza.

Zuranolone, which is being developed with Sage Therapeutics and is seeking licenses for major depressive disorder and postpartum depression, is set for an FDA decision in August.

But thinking ahead to its launch, and the marketing strategy that comes with it, Biogen will need to change things up. The biopharma has not been big on ads: Viehbacher noted that “Biogen has done exactly one television commercial in its history,” which was for its MS drug Tecfidera back in 2015, but now “that’s something we’re going to have to get good at.”  

There’s no doubt Biogen will need to go heavy on promotion. Sell-side consensus compiled by analysts at Evaluate Pharma sees zuranolone's 2026 in-market sales at $1.6 billion, but they noted in a report last year that “is increasingly looking like a tough target,” as there are lingering questions over how well the drug can help depression in the longer term after a mixed bag of data for the drug.

Then there is Spinraza, which had been one of Biogen’s biggest growth drivers in the early days of its launch, but that trajectory has now slowed.  

The drug, licensed to spinal muscular atrophy, a genetic condition that makes the muscles weaker and causes problems with movement, made $1.79 billion last year but that was down from the $1.9 billion it made in 2021.

This follows a trend over the past few years that has seen sales drop nearly every quarter when compared to the year-ago period. This is primarily due to competition from Novartis’ rival therapy Zolgensma, which is squeezing market share away from Spinraza.

When it comes to the therapy, Viehbacher appears to have a marketing game plan that goes all the way back to Genzyme, the rare disease unit Sanofi bought more than a decade ago and was run under his leadership.

“How do we get more out of Spinraza,” he asked on the call with investors. “You know, when you're in a rare disease business, [it’s] different than most other businesses and therapeutic areas, where the norm is that you as a patient go see a physician.”

But when it comes to rare diseases, “you have to go find the patient,” he explained. “I remember when I was at Genzyme, someone in marketing [taught] me very early on that their marketing strategy [for rare diseases] is looking for needles in a haystack. And that actually becomes a core competency.”

He said that this is “one of the areas that we have to go after,” in that the company needs to better seek out more patients who can benefit from the drug, rather than waiting for them to go to their doctor.  

While Aduhelm is dead, Leqembi, a similar Alzheimer’s drug to Aduhelm and co-marketed with Eisai, nabbed an FDA approval at the start of the year. That drug, however, is not expected to make any money this year as launch costs will outweigh any sales, Biogen told investors.

The biopharma is redirecting some resources from the MS franchise to support Leqembi’s launch, Viehbacher explained, but the company will need to find the right balance so it doesn't further hurt MS sales, he added.