Pfizer and Cohn & Wolfe plan launch for Viagra after UK reclassification - can they break through disfunction taboo?

Yesterday's announcement that Pfizer's Viagra Connect drug has been reclassified means it can now be marketed direct to the public, and while one expert expects a "blockbuster" launch campaign, health PRs have underlined the need for its PR firm Cohn & Wolfe to ensure a measured approach.

The UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) yesterday said that Viagra Connect (sildenafil) would be reclassified from POM (prescription only medicine) to P (pharmacy only).

In a reported world first, this means the pill will be displayed in pharmacies but beyond the reach of customers, who will only be able to buy it following discussion with pharmacist about their erectile dysfunction. 

"Pfizer is currently working on plans for the launch of Viagra Connect in the UK in the spring of 2018. In the interim, the company will be implementing an extensive training and education programme within pharmacies," according to a press release from Pfizer, which lists Cohn & Wolfe as a contact.

The agency began work during the declassification process earlier in 2017 and will work on the spring launch. There was no additional public affairs or lobbying agency.

"Cohn & Wolfe is the public relations agency working with Pfizer Consumer Healthcare to support the launch of Viagra Connect in the UK," a spokeswoman for the agency confirmed. "This work, which started earlier this year, involves consumer and trade PR and communications.

Big spend predicted

Anna Maxwell, whose firm Maxwellia specialises in helping prescrption drugs convert into over-the-counter (OTC) products, commented: "Viagra Connect can now be advertised to the general public. We would expect Pfizer to give this launch the blockbuster treatment."

She predicted "a full-mix campaign with emphasis on the brand experience at point of supply, as well as driving awareness of its availability", saying she expected Viagra Connect marketing would be likely to have one of the biggest budgets for any OTC brand in the UK.

She said that a key component of this campaign would be working "to ensure that pharmacists and pharmacy assistants are well trained so that they can intuitively help the men presenting [with symptoms] without embarrassment".

Alexa Forbes, who last year sold Packer Forbes to Four Communications and is CEO of the merged entity, concurred. "From a marketing perspective you will need to be seen to be supporting the pharmacy profession with education, training and dialogue tools. The dialogue piece is particularly important because this topic is embarrassing and there are a number of safety issues associated with use of Viagra," he said.

Forbes continued: "The pharmacist will now be on the front line and will need our support. Any marketing approach will need to take account of these nuances. It isn’t a simple case of an celebrity-driven direct to consumer marketing approach."

Transformative opportunity

Angie Wiles, founder of healthcare agency The Difference Collective, said that while Pfizer's campaign would have to be "nuanced and sensible" in its approach, it would have to work to "get the message across to a group of men that are not traditionally the most likely to seek medical support".

The reclassification of the drug therefore presents a broader opportunity, she argued. "Positioned in the right way this could really transform the management of erectile dysfunction, in a similar way to the way the market changed when emergency contraception moved to pharmacy and improved access," she commented.

Paul Tanner, chair of agency 90ten, added: "Reclassification of Viagra presents a significant opportunity for Pfizer. It gives greater freedom to provide information about the product and reignite conversation about an ageing treatment and erectile dysfunction – a devastating condition still sadly shrouded in stigma and taboo."

And he went on to say: "Effective consumer education, particularly considering search marketing will be critical to reach men, and their partners, about the increased availability of Viagra and help them identify if it’s the right solution for them."

Counterfeit claim questioned

Pfizer's announcement, the MHRA's and another from the PAGB all say the change could prevent men turning to potentially dangerous unlicensed or counterfeit medicines, as men will no longer have to seek the drug via a prescription.

Tanner agreed that the reclassifaction would "force down demand for potentially dangerous, counterfeit versions".

However, the online news editor of PRWeek sister title GPonline said it was "questionable" whether this would be the case. Nick Bostock said: "Success on this front will surely depend to a large degree on pricing - if unlicensed or counterfeit drugs remain significantly cheaper, it seems possible that people may well still be tempted to go down that route."

Bostock also noted that erectile dysfunction can be a warning sign of other diseases, saying: "Some GPs are concerned that making this drug available without a prescription could mean that chances to diagnose patients with these underlying conditions could be missed."

However, Maxwell commented that she thought "a significant upside" of the change would be "that men who may be suffering from a more serious underlying condition can be routed in to primary care a lot earlier", as a result of discussions with pharmacists or private research on the product.

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