Goodbye to Belsomra's furry mascots. Merck's focusing on sleepless patients instead

Belsomra's furry word creatures have officially retired. Merck & Co.'s "sleep" cat and "wake" dog in the insomnia drug's first wave of TV ads are giving way to a new empathy-oriented campaign that builds on sleepless patients' personal frustrations.

In a new TV ad begun last week, a woman turns off her television, shuts the curtains, dims the lights and turns off her phone before lying down to sleep. But one by one, the devices turn themselves back on to keep her awake.

“The original ad served its purpose. We were a very late entrant to the market, and at the time, the team felt we needed to break through,” said Doug Black, U.S. marketing leader for insomnia at Merck. “What we’ve learned since then as we’ve listened to our consumers, is that to reach a broader audience, we needed to find a more empathetic message.”

The original ad did “tremendously well” in launching the brand, he said, but the time had come for a change to the more empathetic and customer-focused message. 

Another change is the emphasis on mechanism of action (MOA). In the furry creature words ad, there was a dedicated push to explain the market-differentiating MOA for Belsomra versus that of competitors already on the market. Now, Merck is backing off MOA as a focal point, although the marketing does still mention its differences.

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Black explained the change to focus on efficacy “because ultimately, for a broader audience, efficacy is the main driver. … If the product doesn’t work the way you want it to, it doesn’t matter what the MOA is.”

The TV ad will run selectively, he noted, with the bulk of Belsomra’s ongoing effort in digital. Thanks to the earlier campaign and market experience since the drug's launch in 2015, the brand team has learned how to craft and optimize its digital media mix to reach potential patients all along their journeys, Black said.

“You don’t wake up—You don’t stay awake one night and realize 'I’ve got to do something about my insomnia.' You live with it for some time,” he said. “So instead of shouting very loudly in one very big broadcast channel, we try to position ourselves in different ways along the patient journey to have a message at various points that are more motivating.”

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Merck’s overall effort in the category also includes unbranded advertising. The “Why Am I So Awake" campaign has run on TV, in print, in healthcare providers' offices, and on digital and social channels, including its own Twitter page. It also includes a website for more information. Actress Christina Applegate is the campaign spokesperson.

Belsomra plays in the crowded but slumping sleep-aid drug market. Insomnia drug sales are predicted to fall to $1.4 billion in 2016 from $2.1 billion in 2013, according to research from GlobalData, thanks to persistent generic competition. Sales are predicted to rise, however, to $1.8 billion by 2023, led by Belsomra. GlobalData estimates sales for the Merck product at $458 million that year. Merck does not break out Belsomra sales in its financial reports.