Painkiller drugs face headache from US

The impending arrival of US painkiller Advil is stirring up the UK drugs industry, but its impact remains to be seen.

The company that brings pain relief to millions of Britons through Anadin is about to create a new headache for the makers of some of the UK’s best known painkillers, including Nurofen.

Whitehall Laboratories, the number one over-the-counter drugs maker in the US, is bringing one of its most successful drugs – Advil – to the UK, along with an estimated 5m advertising budget.

Such a heavyweight spend for an analgesic, which would usually receive launch support of between 2m and 3m, underlines how difficult it will be for the drug to break into such a highly competitive market. It also underlines how determined Whitehall is to make a splash.

According to industry observers, just 20 per cent of painkiller consumers account for 80 per cent of all sales in what is the largest otc market, valued at 185.7m in 1994. It brings Whitehall into direct confrontation with Crookes Healthcare’s Nurofen and SmithKline Beecham’s Solpadeine.

Advil is the number two painkiller in the US – second only to the Johnson & Johnson-owned Tylenol – with a 12.4 per cent share by value of the US market in the 12 months to June 1996. Although Whitehall refuses to discuss the launch of the painkiller it is known that it will be available by the end of September.

The company is in the middle of selecting an agency to handle a TV campaign scheduled to air in November and has spoken to Duckworth Finn Grubb Waters and Publicis among others.

Publicis already handles ads for Anadin and Whitehall’s Centrum range of vitamins and minerals. Interestingly, it also works with the retailer Asda with whom Whitehall is in dispute over the de-listing of Anadin Paracetamol and the continuation of Resale Price Maintenance.

The 3m ad campaign that marked the launch of the Centrum range provides a recent example of the strategy employed by Whitehall’s US parent, American Home Products, of taking successful US brands into other markets.

There are no figures available, but retailers say Centrum is already on a par with Roche Consumer Health’s Sanatogen. Supermarket sources expect the brand to have a sales value of 3m by the end of the year.

Anadin is the number one painkiller in the UK but it is the makers of numbers two and three – Nurofen and Solpadeine – that are going to have to react to launch of Advil. The new painkiller is based on Ibuprofen, an anti-inflammatory ingredient especially effective in treating muscular and joint pains. But so is Nurofen, Crookes Healthcare’s strong painkiller for muscular pain, which will affect the way Whitehall positions the product.

The number three brand, Solpadeine, made by SmithKline Beecham, is based on several ingredients, including Paracetamol and Codeine, which allows it to be positioned for fast, strong and effective pain relief. Ironically, it is Anadin that potentially stands to suffer most.

“There are substantial forecasts for growth in the UK market with some manufacturers estimating that the analgesic market will double in value in the next five years,” says one pharmaceutical analyst. “At the start of the Nineties, when Nurofen was sold in just one formula, Tylenol was being sold in the US in 300 different forms.

“That leads the makers to believe there is room for diversity through brand extensions. There are two potential areas for growth, firstly through widening the product offering and secondly through improving distribution. That is why Whitehall sees an opportunity in the UK market.”

There will be some brand cannibalisation within Whitehall and Anadin Extra appears to be the most vulnerable because it and Advil are both strong painkillers. To make Advil work, Whitehall needs to position it as a treatment for everyday pain, in the same way that Nurofen approaches the market.

Boots Healthcare International and its UK division Crookes Healthcare will be watching the launch and its positioning with more than a little interest. Nurofen is its second biggest brand and the one it has pinned its hopes of international expansion on. Crookes refuses to discuss plans to defend Nurofen from the arrival of Advil although more brand extensions are on the agenda.

Solpadeine is less likely to be affected because it has pharmacy-only distribution. Whitehall lacks pharmacy distribution and Advil will be sold through grocery chains.

Nurofen, available through both grocery and pharmacy routes, is the real target for Advil. It has been available in grocery outlets since January and ten per cent of all Nurofen sales are now through those grocery chains. As the general trend for buying medicines over the counter increases, so their share will increase.

“Advil will probably do OK,” says another analyst. “But by increasing the noise in the market they will be doing Crookes and the others a favour.”

The expansion of the market should benefit Whitehall but ironically it could also work against it. The worst case scenario would see Nurofen benefiting from the extra spend in the sector and Advil stealing sales from its sister brand Anadin rather than its rivals. That is the sort of headache that even a high ad spend will not ease.

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