Building a brand rather than just launching a pill

GlaxoSmithKline launched its weight loss drug Alli earlier this week in Europe with a marketing spend of £8.5m in the UK alone. But since the treatment can have pretty dramatic and unfortunate side effects, the company is hoping its potential obesity-busting effects will appear alluring enough to consumers to overcome any negative publicity.

GSK consumer healthcare marketing director of over-the-counter products, Tim Brooks, emphasises just how much is riding on this product: “It’s the biggest thing we’ve ever done”.

Alli has been available in the US for two years but it is the only non-prescription weight-loss treatment to receive a licence from the European Commission. It is a half-strength version of prescription-only Xenical (generic name Orlistat).

From 22 April, it can be bought in pharmacies across the country, but will only be available to those overweight adults with a body mass index of more than 28 – technically classified as overweight. Unlike in the US, where it can be stocked on supermarket shelves, Alli can only be bought with the guidance of a pharmacist in the UK.

Alli’s unfortunate side effects – or as GSK euphemistically terms them, the “diet-related treatment effects” – result from the drug preventing about 25% of the fat a person eats from being absorbed into the body. This undigested fat can cause what GSK calls “an urgent need to go to the bathroom”.

Gamely, GSK claims this side effect is a “positive feedback tool” that will motivate a person to eat less fat. It also adds that for at least half of users, it doesn’t happen at all and for nearly everyone else it is manageable and is unlikely to happen with the right diet.

To help overcome potential negativity regarding the side effects and to promote healthy lifestyles, GSK has developed a marketing campaign based around education and information. It is anxious not to present Alli as a “miracle pill” but as part of a lifestyle change, including a lower-fat diet and exercise. “It’s about building a brand, not launching a diet pill,” Brooks says.

Brooks describes the marketing activity as being composed of two strands. The first is a business-to-business element, which has involved the training and creation of materials for pharmacists. “We have to make sure pharmacists understand what is involved in selling this product because ultimately they are the ones that are face to face with the consumers,” he says.

GSK says it has so far trained over 7,000 pharmacists and staged 63 events to this end. This is confirmed by a pharmacist at one of the UK’s largest retail chemist chains, who says he has received more training on this drug than any other. He believes Alli will “fly off the shelves” and claims he has been “inundated’ with enquiries after recent press coverage.

Brooks’ second strand of marketing, the consumer-facing activity, will consist of TV ads, magazine partnerships with advertorial and editorial pieces and straightforward press campaigns. The European advertising has been created by WCRS.

Brooks says GSK is also spending £1m – “the most we’ve ever spent” – on online advertising, via accessible information together with chat rooms and forums. Brooks adds the company has focused on search engines as “never before”.

GSK’s positioning of Alli is very much on-message with the Government’s Change4Life anti-obesity strategy; while there is no formal link or endorsement of Alli from the Government’s side, GSK sees potential parallels between obesity and smoking. It merged its smoking cessation and anti-obesity divisions in the US last year.

Brooks says: “I think that, in time, the smoking model of using government funding to drive people to practical product solutions, with pharmacy providing advice and support, could apply to weight loss.”

In the meantime, GSK is taking the marketing infrastructure that it is putting in place for the Alli launch and extending it beyond the product alone. With more people turning to the internet to self-diagnose and for advice on self-medication, Brooks sees this as a key focus area for the future: “We’ve got to get self-medication growing and to do that, we’ve got to do scaleable things like this in categories that matter.”

This will require GSK to absorb the learnings from its experiences with Alli. Just a year ago, when chief executive Andrew Witty took over, it was suggested that he might sell off the firm’s consumer arm. Witty reiterated his commitment to the division and Brooks says the Alli launch is further proof of this.

“The commitment we’ve had from the company is really reflective of a change in the way consumers are seen by GSK,” Brooks says. The £8.5m behind Alli seems to prove his point. 

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