When the FDA approved Digene Corp.'s test for the human papillomavirus (HPV) in 2003, the company knew it had only taken the first step of an uphill battle.
Many women didn't even know HPV existed, let alone that it's a proven cause of cervical cancer. Having spoken with doctors, Digene found that many weren't telling women about the test; however, most agreed that, if patients already knew about it, they would be far more likely to discuss it with them.
If Digene was going to raise awareness levels, it had to convince women to deviate from the yearly Pap smear routine that was ingrained in so many of their minds.
"The improvements offered by the HPV test really rely on women being able to ask for it and doctors being able to tell them about it," says Corrie Murphy, VP of healthcare for Lippe Taylor Public Relations.
Digene knew that it was going to have to educate women directly. Digene hired Lippe Taylor, known for its focus on women, which began to look for ways to reach the target audience of women over 30. The firm saw an instant kinship between this group and the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA), a league known for its health-conscious attitude, and enlisted the athletes to personify the kind of assertive women it was hoping to create.
With many of the players turning 30 this year, Lippe Taylor selected six prominent athletes and began educating them about the risks of HPV, while also incorporating personal details about the players into the campaign to help resonate with different types of women. The agency chose Lisa Leslie (Los Angeles Sparks), Becky Hammon (New York Liberty), Sheri Sam (Charlotte Sting), Katie Smith (Minnesota Lynx), Nikki McCray (San Antonio Silver Stars), and Tina Thompson (Houston Comets).
"One of the things we wanted was for the players to react as women who didn't really know about this test, so they could channel that honest surprise into their ability to educate other women," says Murphy.
The firm planned to start broadly with a national media blitz, which would gradually funnel down into smaller, regional media. The two-day launch began in Times Square, where the players distributed information to women. They also held live remote appearances on Good Day New York and the WB Morning News, interviews in national magazines, such as Redbook and Woman's Day, and an announcement at the NASDAQ opening ceremony.
Lippe Taylor also used the opening event as an opportunity to get women to "Take the Pledge," in which they promised to ask their doctors for an HPV test and agreed to educate their female relatives and friends on the dangers of HPV. "If women knew about it before they went into their doctor's offices, they would be more proactive. It's easier to start a new habit than to break an old one," says Pam Rasmussen, VP of corporate communications, Digene.
The Times Square event attracted more than 1,200 women, and more than 150 signed pledges.
Visitor traffic to www.theHPVtest.com increased 104% during April. The NASDAQ opening ceremony was televised by such networks as CNN and CNBC, and the story was picked up by several high-profile online outlets. All in all, the launch campaign garnered 67 million media impressions.
Digene and Lippe Taylor are now looking to focus more on regional media, including visits to the players' hometowns. Arena events featuring cancer survivors in active roles will be held at WNBA games across the country, and the players will wear cervical cancer awareness shirts during warm-ups at an August 10 game at Madison Square Garden. They will be auctioned off to raise awareness for HPV and cervical cancer.
"Our biggest competitor is ignorance," says Rasmussen.
PR team: Digene Corp. (Gaithersburg, MD) and Lippe Taylor Public Relations (New York)
Campaign: Choose to Know
Time frame: April 2005