Twenty years ago, alternative medicine was just that. A different
method of health treatment for enthusiasts who chose to eschew
traditional medicine in favour of more ’natural’ therapies. Now many of
us have consulted at least an osteopath and the trend towards the use of
homoeopathy and aromatherapy is gaining pace.
Here’s Health, the Emap title for complementary health enthusiasts, even
considers the national dailies its main rivals. The message is clear:
alternative health is now mainstream.
Here’s Health’s newly appointed editor, Sheena Miller, sums up her
typical reader. ’She wants to take charge of her and her family’s
She distrusts antibiotics and is proactive,’ says Miller. Unfortunately
this is Everywoman of the 1990s, the one who shops at Boots and reads
anything from the Independent to the Daily Mail. This may be why Here’s
Health has enjoyed only a minimal year on year rise in circulation, from
42,417 to 42,558.
The interest in complementary medicine has enjoyed phenomenal growth -
the market was worth an estimated pounds 72 million in 1996, up 36 per
cent since 1991, according to a Mintel survey published at the end of
Mintel market analyst Moira Paterson, says there has also been an
improvement in packaging and on-pack information.
’Many people told us they would buy or try products if they had more
information and manufacturers seem to be addressing that with clearer
positioning, leaflets and colour coding,’ she comments.
Herbal medicines how have 53 percent of the market, homoeopathic
remedies account for 28 per cent and aromatherapy oils (excluding
toiletries) have enjoyed the biggest growth, up 133 per cent from a low
base in 1992, to 19 per cent of the complementary market, according to
the Mintel survey.
With such widespread, but unregulated usage, it’s not surprising that
the Consumers’ Association has spotted an opportunity. Last month saw
the publication of its first book on the subject, The Which Guide to
Complementary Medicine. According to author Barbara Rowlands, research
by Sheffield University shows that 75 per cent of GPs want some
complementary therapies available on the NHS and four in ten already
provide access to acupuncture, chiropractic or osteopathy.
With the complementary market value set to rise by 45 per cent by the
year 2001 to pounds 104 million, it will still be a fringe area in the
pharmaceutical industry. But the increasingly mainstream appeal of all
things complementary suggests this could be a lucrative market for PR
practitioners of all kinds.
But Justin Clark, formerly of Hill and Knowlton and Shandwick, and now
director of Clark Coombes Drake (CCD), alternative healthcare
’Alternative may be fashionable, but this is a low-scale, low-budget
industry,’ he says. ’PR is generally done in-house by non-PR people,
interested in the medical, rather than business side, of
CCD has handled the British Chiropractic Association’s PR for five years
and in the last four has stage-managed National Back Pain Week, a
promotion which puts callers straight through to their local
chiropractor via a national freephone number. Last year, 23,000 people
rang and 50 per cent bought treatment, all for a PR budget of pounds
Unlike almost every other complementary therapy, chiropractic and
osteopathy are regulated, and accepted by most orthodox practitioners.
This means that along with conventional approaches to health writers and
personalised releases to local newspapers, Clark sees a new opening.
’Bed rest and aspirin are the traditional GP cure for back pain but it
usually means lots of home visits and recurring problems. If we can put
the GP in touch with their local, named chiropractor, the problem will
be far more effectively handled and reduce costs to the fundholder,’ he
Hospital trusts are also being informed about their local chiropractice
while practitioners themselves are being given guidelines about how to
approach GPs. Some NHS Trusts, such as Lewisham Hospital in South East
London, even employ a homoeopath to whom local GPs can refer patients on
But wholehearted establishment acceptance is still a long way off. Nicky
Smith, account director at Maureen Cropper Communications which handles
Bach’s flower remedies, believes that fighting complementary medicine’s
’cranky’ image is still priority - a view echoed by Valerie Grundon, who
has worked in the field for almost 20 years. She handles Seven Seas
range of supplements, Hofels herbal tonics and New Era nutritional
All require a level of knowledge and understanding to administer.
’To an extent, we have learnt to target the ethnic pharmacists simply
because people from Asia and India have a lot more understanding of
complementary remedies and feel at ease recommending them,’ she
Packaging and presentation remains a major issue. New Era’s A-S
combination salts have been repackaged in cartons, but the single salts,
which are more complicated to take, have stayed in pots, in their
traditional health food outlets. ’This is because we’re appealing to an
informed customer, not the supermarket shopper,’ says Grundon.
Peter Sofroniou, editor of the trade paper Natural Product News, says
this targeting seems to be working. ’In the last few years we’ve seen
just about every herbal remedy being put in blister packs, competing
head on with the little white pills. I’m not convinced that’s what
If it’s an alternative to a drug, shouldn’t it look like one?’
Not if ’alternative’ is another name for an unprofessional
Over the last five years, Boots has increased its emphasis on
complementary sales and brought out own-brand herbal products to give
them a wholesome, reliable image. Last October, vitamins and
alternatives PR was brought back in-house, under PR manager (and
pharmacist) Tim Legge, allowing a more holistic approach to product
’For the first time, it meant we could take products from OTC and
complementary sectors and show how they could be used together. So, for
example, in a first aid/travel kit promotion this summer, we could
include conventional things, plus tea tree cream or rosemary essential
oil to help reduce jet lag,’ he says.
Alternative products are positioned alongside vitamins to extend
customer choice, says Legge, but away from orthodox medicines where they
may confuse people.
Alternative products are not licensed and can’t make medical claims.
According to Julie McClean, co-director of Kanuka which handles
Tisserand aromatherapy oils, this can make life tricky. Kanuka cannot
describe a product as a ’stress relieving oil’, though it can say it
helps relieve stress.
Nevertheless, there is increasing emphasis on providing journalists with
scientific backup for such claims: Kanuka’s Aroma 97 conference in July
will bring orthodox medics and aromatherapists together, pooling
research from around the world.
And Scotia, the evening primrose oil licence holder, has invested
heavily in establishing its benefits through clinical trials. Its
nutritional subsidiary, Efamol, is taking a similar route to give the
brand a more serious profile against competition from own-brands.
’We’re unusual in always citing clinical trials in press releases,’ says
Jean Garon, whose company handles Scotia’s PR as well as vaccines for
SmithKline Beecham. ’Our job on both is science-based and educative,’
But despite this increasingly scientific approach, market worth and the
small size of most complementary health manufacturers means the
pharmaceutical giants can ignore it. Caroline Ashe, director of
healthcare at Countrywide Porter Novelli, says Wellcome, which developed
AZT, felt ’honour bound’ to mention complementary therapies in all of
its Aids/HIV literature.
But attempts to find out what Glaxo, SmithKline Beecham et al are doing
to counter claims by enthusiasts made for complementary medicines met
with silence. ’Complementary medicine is a pimple on the elephant’s bum,
it’s simply of no relevance,’ said a press officer from one drugs
BIOFORCE: HERBAL COURSES AND COLUMN INCHES
Smallwood PR, based in Leicester, has handled Bioforce’s range of herbal
tinctures for almost four years. Bioforce is a Swiss company which
launched in the UK ten years ago, since when Britain has emerged as its
best new market. Bioforce produces 300 products, but Echinaforce far
outsells anything else, accounting for 25 per cent of sales and it is
one of the top five sellers in health food shops.
’We were ticking along quite nicely until four years ago. By then we
realised we needed a specialist who could devote more time to our PRas
we were being swamped with press enquiries,’ says Bioforce managing
director Janyn Tan. As a small company with a turnover of pounds 2
million a year, advertising was deemed too costly, ’and it’s not what
we’re about’. Instead, Bioforce allotted a budget of around pounds
20,000 a year for PR, plus a further pounds 10,000 to pounds 20,000 to
spend on literature.
The appointment of Judith Smallwood coincided with the repackaging of
the herbal tincture range - the labelled glass bottle was boxed, with an
attractive photograph of the relevant herb on the front (this was
slightly updated six weeks ago). It allowed for stronger Bioforce
branding and more information.
Initially, Smallwood’s emphasis was on general education about herbal
products, targeting both retailers and consumers. ’Column inches was the
main thing,’ she says. ’It was classic stuff, making contact with
individual journalists and beginning with generic PR for the herb. So it
was about echinacea, explaining the benefits of the raw ingredient and
not worrying too much about the branding.’ The fact that it was an
interesting and photogenic subject, from a manufacturer which claims to
be a pioneer in the field, helped, says Smallwood.
Information from clinical trials was presented in jargon-free language,
backing up Bioforce’s claims for the plant. These double blind trial
results were particularly effective in the specialist press. Trade
magazines, such as Chemist and Druggist, run sections on the natural
health market and demand technical information.
After 12 months, Smallwood brought the brand, Echinaforce, centre stage,
culminating last spring in the production of a consumer magazine on all
aspects of herbal medicine and the Bioforce range. It appears quarterly
- currently 100,000 copies per issue - and is given away in health food
At around the same time Smallwood launched the Bioforce Phytotherapy
Course, a series of correspondence lessons on plant medicine. It was
publicised via leaflets at Bioforce outlets aimed at retailers and
consumers. Smallwood has been thrilled by the response: 450 people,
including health food retailers, a pharmacist, several doctors and
journalists are about to complete the 12-module course, and another 200
are part-way through. There will be a fresh intake in May.
’We’re not trying to get heaps of coverage for the products, or suggest
they’re a cure-all. It’s part of an ongoing educative campaign,’ says
Smallwood. With sales doubling each year, it appears to be working.
BIOTECHNOLOGY: CASH QUESTIONS CAST A CLOUD OVER DRUG ADVANCEMENT
Biotechnology is the creation of new drugs from synthetically-produced,
rather than animal-derived, substances, involving areas of genetic
research and chemistry not covered in the A-level syllabus. Current
worldwide sales of biopharmaceuticals are estimated at dollars 9.1
As a PR for a biotechnology research outfit, your brief will usually be
to match up companies with developing and probably loss-making products
to backers prepared to invest millions.
In America and Japan the industry is about 10 years ahead of us, but the
UK leads the field in Europe.
Companies such as British Biotech, Biocompatible, Cantab
Pharmaceuticals, Cerebrus, Cambridge Combinatorial, Phytopharm, Oxford
Moelcular Development, Shield and Cortecs, are among the significant
players in this rapidly developing sector.
As small organisations in desperate need of cash, they are vulnerable to
takeover bids from the pharmaceutical giants. In 1994 there were around
50 biotech-biotech alliances globally, the most significant being the
acquisition of Synergen by Amgen (the largest American company). And in
1995, Ciba-Geigy bought a 49.4 per cent stake in Chiron Corporation, the
world’s second largest biotechnology company.
In the more mature US market, generalist PR agencies are moving in on
the act, says Julia Phillips managing director of Noonan/Russo’s London
office, which specialises in biotechnology and financial PR and is
closely aligned to Shire Hall Communications. ’Our key issues are
positioning, differentiating companies and building credibility in a
market where no UK company has yet produced a product,’ she says.
But in the UK, it’s a job for the specialists and so far Shire Hall with
Noonan/Russo, Citigate BioCommunications, Ludgate, Genus, Brunswick
Communications and Buchanan Communications, appear to have the sector
Citigate, the financial PR firm, is the only one so far to create a
dedicated business arm. This deliberate biotech branding exemplifies the
increasing importance of the sector and the specialist treatment it
The Citigate offshoot was established 18 months ago and now has 11
clients, under the care of a three-strong team, headed by Miranda
Kavanagh. ’Forget everything that looks normal in other companies,
because normal in this sector means loss making,’ warns Kavanagh.
This is one of the three trickiest issues she has to put across. And
while financial journalists may have little difficulty coming to terms
with the separate, negative listing on the Stock Exchange reserved for
companies such as these, others can find it a challenging concept.
Then there is the scientific angle. If the companies are to win
investment, the PR people have to convince brokers, who in turn sell the
concept to their clients. These people understand plain, unscientific
English, not the PhD-level jargon presented by the scientists. This is
where PR people with a scientific background come into their own The
final problem is the volatility of the quoted company. As in new
technology, people are putting money on hope, says Kavanagh, so rumour
alone can cause shares to fluctuate wildly.
Mike Wort, director of Genus Communications which has specialised in
life science and biotechnology-based clients for the past three years,
now has around 20 companies on his books. He believes 450 new biotech
organisations will emerge across Europe in the next two years.
’That’s 450 clients with no one there to help them find funding. This is
a tragedy - we are dealing with significant medical issues here.’ Mark
Cater, account director at Edelman PR Worldwide, agrees. He has overseen
the British launch of the first commercially-available biotech drug for
diabetes, made by Eli Lilly. Internationally, around 36 per cent of
biotech firms have just one year of cash reserves left.
’Many analysts agree the crisis is mainly due to the naivete and greed
of investors who are quick to react to the news of one negative clinical
trial. This has meant the industry only announcing the good news, often
prematurely,’ he says.
PR is not reacting quickly enough to the demands of this emerging
market, says Cater. ’The science exists, but few people know about it,
biotech companies are just not informing their target audiences about
the potential this new technology promises.’ If PR isn’t used at the
clinical trial stage, the prescribers providing the market for these new
drugs, will be unaware of them and the companies will fail, says Cater.