Merck KGaA's amped-up consumer pitch delivers much-needed sales hike

Merck KGaA's Atilla Cansun

Sales for Merck KGaA's OTC unit posted a double-digit jump in Q1, and it was no accident. The company has been doubling down on the "consumer" part of "consumer health"--a move it says is paying off.

The company has put a "significant increase" into its market research investments to find out what consumers are really looking for, Merck Consumer Health's Chief Marketing Officer, Atilla Cansun, told FiercePharmaMarketing via email--and it's been innovating accordingly.

"We certainly have strong focus on working with pharmacists and physicians around the world, as they have an important consultancy and recommendation role, but the final customer is our consumer," he wrote. "So, we started to think and act beyond the healthcare professionals and put massively increased focus on the solutions that our consumers desire."

Take the company's Seven Seas Perfect 7 launch from late 2014, Cansun offered. The German drugmaker learned from its customers that they wanted products to help them stay younger longer, so it "developed an innovative and unique blend of Omega-3 oils, vitamins and minerals specifically tailored to the nutritional needs of men and women addressing 7 different health and wellbeing concerns in regards to "inner aging."

The consumer-focused approach has also helped Merck transition key prescription brands over to the OTC side--like vitamin D supplement Vigantoletten. To drive growth for the product, Merck launched it in stick form, delivering fast-melting micro pellets that can be taken on the go without water. The new formulation provides "more convenience and ease of use for a product previously targeted rather toward healthcare professionals," Merck said in a statement.

So far, the Darmstadt-based company has seen results. In 2015's first quarter, its consumer health division recorded a 13% jump in organic sales growth as it hauled in €217 million. In Latin America and Asia/Pacific, it notched 25% leaps, thanks in part to a wealth of marketing efforts surrounding products like diarrhea treatment Floratil in Brazil and vitamin B supplement Neurobion in Indonesia.

Merck's consumer health sales will have to keep it up to help offset its slumping prescription drug business, which hit below analysts' estimates in Q1. Sales for the company's best seller, MS injectable Rebif, have suffered on competition from newer, oral rivals, like Biogen's ($BIIB) Tecfidera, Sanofi's ($SNY) Aubagio and Novartis' ($NVS) Gilenya.

But continuing on the upward trajectory is exactly what Merck Consumer Health plans to do, Cansun said, and the next step will be bringing the consumer-centric approach to its mid- to long-term pipeline. "This is not a one-time effort," he wrote. "We need to keep driving this consumer focus."

- read Merck KGaA's release (PDF)

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