Merck enlists patients for award-winning marketing on allergy-fighters

Marketing a drug with a black-box warning is always challenging, but even more difficult when the treatment category is already flooded with less risky and inexpensive OTC options.

Merck's Ragwitek ad

That's the challenge Merck faced with Ragwitek and Grastek, two new kinds of oral seasonal allergy immunotherapies that work to build immunity in the same way as allergy shots. Both drugs were approved by the FDA in April 2014 with boxed warnings for "severe allergic reactions."

Yet even then, Merck was building a community of allergic rhinitis sufferers who weren't getting relief with on-market remedies--more than a third of allergy patients, by Merck's estimation. The company said it began a "market research online community" three years before the first products were set to launch, according to its campaign submission to the Advertising Research Foundation. The allergy-suffering community it built "moved us beyond traditional market research inquiry, opening a door for a two-way dialogue and fueling co-creation with our customers," Merck wrote.

Merck, along with marketing partners Ipsos Healthcare and McCann Humancare, worked with the group to gather insights and test campaign ideas, but also went beyond typical market research to do things like set up simulated doctor-patient dialogues and try out blogging exercises for parents of allergic kids. They even had group members act as "secret shoppers" with doctors post-launch to gauge physicians' perceptions of the drugs.

Bogdan Dragut

"Using a community to connect with allergy sufferers, whose conditions are often quite severe, allowed us to increase our level of empathy as researchers and discover things on a much more organic level," said Bogdan Dragut, vice president at Ipsos Healthcare in North America, in the submission.

The result was increased traffic to the website, more-engaged visitors and an increase in intent to speak to a doctor about allergies, Merck reported. The insights and results helped push the small Merck brands to a Gold award win for innovation at this year's ARF David Ogilvy Awards.

The campaign, which launched in TV, print and online video with ads titled "Flying Ragweed" for Ragwitek and "Green Fields" for Grastek last year, is still running in targeted media, the Merck marketing team said via email.

When Ragwitek was approved two years ago, analysts estimated eventual annual sales of $300 million; Merck has not broken out individual sales numbers for either Ragwitek or Grastek in quarterly or annual reports since launch. Other competitors in the allergy immunotherapy pill market include Stallergenes Greer's Oralair, which also was approved with a black box warning.

- read Merck's full ARF submission
- see the Ragwitek ad

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