When Merck & Co. ($MRK) suddenly took over Merck KGaA's Facebook page, that was one thing. But when demonstrators showed up at the German Merck's London office--to protest a move by the U.S.-based Merck--that was something else entirely.
As Bloomberg reports, protestors showed up to vilify Big Pharma's lobbying against new generic drug rules in South Africa, designed to get cheap drugs to more patients. From STOPAIDS, a U.K. organization focused on HIV, the group not only used the Merck name, shared by both companies since the end of World War I. They had emblazoned their signs with the German Merck's logo.
And the German Merck isn't involved in that lobbying effort.
STOPAIDS did apologize. But the protests pointed up a longstanding problem identifying which Merck is which. At FiercePharma, we are careful to use the KGaA in headlines and tweets about the German company. But even that raises Merck KGaA CEO Karl-Ludwig Kley's ire. After all, Merck & Co. is only "Merck" in the U.S. and Canada. Most everywhere else, it uses the moniker MSD, or Merck Sharp & Dohme.
And most everywhere else, "Merck" refers to Merck KGaA. To further illustrate the split, Merck KGaA ranked third on FiercePharma's list of companies with the biggest share of its sales in emerging markets. But the German company's presence in the U.S. is relatively small--such that it sees the States as a sort of "emerging market" for its own growth.
Clearly, the name-sharing leads to trouble. As Bloomberg notes, the two companies are playing tug-of-war over the ".merck" top-level domain on the Internet. And they've already had their dust-up over Facebook. Merck KGaA had the Merck Facebook page all sewn up, officially recognized by the Facebook powers-that-be. Until one day, when Merck & Co. made its Facebook debut--on that same page. Eventually, Facebook admitted its mistake and let the German Merck resume its place at Facebook.com/Merck. Merck & Co. now sits at Facebook.com/MerckBeWell.
"There's no question that having two major pharmaceutical companies with the name of Merck causes a lot of confusion," said Timothy Calkins, professor of marketing at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management (as quoted by Bloomberg). "It is something I think they should address. As we get more global, and as these companies bump into each other more often, it's going to become more and more of a challenge."
Calkins suggested to Bloomberg that the two companies settle on different-yet-similar names, à la Abbott Laboratories ($ABT) and the pharma unit it spun off last year, AbbVie ($ABBV). But Kley, for one, doesn't seem amenable to the idea. He says he'll be "much more aggressive" about protecting "the real Merck" name. To the point of legal action, if necessary.
- read the Bloomberg story
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