It's make-or-break time for GSK's new sales model as Anoro hits the U.S. market

GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK) isn't taking the launch of new COPD blockbuster hopeful Anoro Ellipta lightly; with market-leader Advair's dominance waning, it can't afford to. And now that the drug has hit American pharmacy shelves, Glaxo's respiratory team has some "critically important" work to do, according to Jorge Bartolome, the company's commercial respiratory SVP in the U.S.

After a couple weeks of stocking, GSK on Monday officially rolled out the red carpet for Anoro, the first product on the U.S. market that combines two bronchodilators in one inhaler--and another tool in Glaxo's respiratory tool box. Now, the crux of the mission will be educating doctors and patients on the drug's profile.

As Bartolome told FiercePharmaMarketing, Glaxo will be "investing quite significantly behind the launch of Anoro in the U.S.," which will begin with tasking "a large portion of our sales force" with the drug's promotion. Thanks to $8 billion-plus Advair, Glaxo already has a sizeable army of reps experienced with COPD. They're starting with pulmonologists this week, with plans to expand in a few weeks to a general audience of physicians who treat the disease.

GSK's U.S. respiratory SVP, Jorge Bartolome

But serving as a Glaxo rep is not the same job it was when Advair hit the market, thanks to a series of marketing reforms wrapped up in GSK's "Patient First" model. The company has shifted its focus--and compensation practices--away from sales quotas and toward the quality of doctor-rep interactions. That means reps need to be highly educated, so they can, in turn, educate doctors.

"We're no longer just sending reps in to talk to practitioners," Bartolome said.

In a way, Glaxo's respiratory franchise is a test case for the new model, with two U.S. respiratory approvals in the past year; another for Incruse Ellipta potentially on the way this week; plus another 5 products in late-stage development. Analysts expect Anoro and recently launched respiratory med Breo to eventually break the blockbuster barrier as Advair flags.

But skeptics abound. Some of Glaxo's peers figure the drugmaker's new quota-free marketing approach won't work as well as the hard-target approach. Without cash incentives, they say, reps may lack the motivation to give their drugs the extra push they might need, particularly in a market as crowded as the respiratory business.

Anoro faces plenty of competition, too. Aside from Advair generics, like the European AirFluSal Forspiro from Novartis' ($NVS) Sandoz, rival drugs Symbicort from AstraZeneca ($AZN) and Dulera from Merck ($MRK) have been grabbing more and more market share as of late. Symbicort will soon have its own generic competition, with Teva ($TEVA) snagging European approval of its version Tuesday. And there's Novartis' Ultibro, another dual bronchodilator awating approval in the U.S.; Wednesday, the Swiss pharma giant touted superiority to Advair in a head-to-head study, and said it expects to file for the FDA's blessing soon.

But Bartolome is confident the lung function improvement that comes along with Anoro's two-bronchodilators-in-one approach will be a hit with patients and physicians alike.

"We're excited about this new route and the impact that this can have on COPD patients who have difficulty breathing. That's the core of why they go see their physicians," he said. "We're really excited about it and really excited about getting this launch off the ground."

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