Merck recruits ex-Law & Order star for new diabetes campaign

S. Epatha Merkerson--Courtesy of Merck

With analysts recently speculating that Merck's top-selling Januvia could be plateauing, the New Jersey company has plenty of reasons to promote diabetes education. With its newest campaign, it's doing just that, and it's teaming up with actress S. Epatha Merkerson to get its message across.

It's a campaign type that's bread-and-butter for diabetes drugmakers, with awareness serving as a safe way to promote a company's franchise. Merck's ($MRK) new campaign joins several from its Big Pharma peers, including Sanofi ($SNY), which inked actress Elizabeth Perkins in 2012 for a Lantus campaign. Novo Nordisk ($NVO) controversially signed on Paula Deen to rep Victoza and is working with hip-hop singer Rev Run on an early detection campaign in the U.S.

Through its America's Diabetes Challenge: Get To Your Goals program, Merck will encourage patients with Type 2 diabetes to understand the importance of blood sugar control and talk to their doctors about setting and attaining goals to keep levels in check. And according to Arpa Garay, Merck's U.S. marketing leader for its diabetes franchise, Golden Globe winner Merkerson is the perfect partner to help the company do it.

"Diagnosed with type 2 diabetes 11 years ago, Merkerson has a family history of the disease and lost her father and grandmother to complications of diabetes. She knows firsthand how type 2 diabetes changes your life and has seen the consequences of not knowing your A1C and not working closely with your doctor to make changes to your plan to get to goal," Garay told FiercePharmaMarketing in an email.

Courtesy of AP

Through the program, Merkerson will travel the country urging patients to find out their A1C--the average blood sugar level over the past two to three months, the company said. She'll also be working with Merck to participate in the American Diabetes Association's Live Empowered program, sharing her personal experience with the disease in local churches and other venues to reach at-risk populations.

And along the way, Merck will strengthen "its leadership in diabetes through a continued focus on patient education," Garay said.

Merck's diabetes franchise could use some strengthening itself, financially speaking. The company has looked to the drug to pull it through tough times as of late, with generic competition to Singulair dragging pharma sales down 8% in 2013, adjusted for foreign currency issues. But Januvia, thanks to increased competition and now-resolved safety concerns, hasn't totally come through for Merck in its time of need. In Q3 of last year, Januvia sales slid 5%, with prescription numbers also sinking. "If the volumes continue to decline, definitely it will be a problem for us," Merck's head of global human health, Adam Schechter, said at the time.

Luckily for Merck, Januvia for now seems to be on the upswing; the blockbuster grew 3% to hit $1.3 billion in first-quarter sales, the drugmaker said Wednesday. And while it crosses its fingers that Januvia continues the comeback, it will continue to stress the importance of diabetes planning and management--prescription drugs included.

"Lifestyle changes, such as diet and exercise, along with medications, when prescribed by your doctor, all play important roles in helping people with type 2 diabetes get to their A1C goal," Dr. Robin Goland, co-director of Columbia University Medical Center's Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center, said in Merck's release. "It's critical for people with type 2 diabetes to work with their doctors to come up with an individualized treatment plan that is right for them, then track the progress and adjust the plan if needed."

- read the release

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