Who will outwit, outlast and outplay?

It certainly isn't a soft sell anymore. Undoubtedly, the erectile dysfunction marketing war has hit a new and fevered pitch.

It certainly isn’t a soft sell anymore. Undoubtedly, the erectile dysfunction marketing war has hit a new and fevered pitch.

Click. A man stands under a showerhead, grinning from ear to ear and singing My Way, while a message pops up on the screen, urging viewers to talk to their doctor. Move up the dial and there’s another commercial extolling the happiness embodied in a little orange pill called Levitra. Meanwhile, another channel is playing up Cialis’ staying power and reputation as ‘le weekender’ with the tag line ‘The Weekend is Here.’

Indeed, a category shakeup is underway as two new entrants vie for position in the ED category, intent on wresting market share away from Pfizer’s Viagra, now celebrating its fifth anniversary in Canada.

There is much at stake. Consider these statistics: The market has nearly tripled to $139 million in 2003, up from $54 million in 1999, according to figures compiled by IMS Health, a Montreal-based research firm, which tracks the pharmaceutical industry.

Other figures show that 152 million men suffer from ED worldwide. That translates into three or four million men in Canada, of whom only an estimated 12% have so far received treatment.

That means huge, untapped sales potential, the marketing gurus say.

‘There is tremendous unmet need,’ says Doug Grant, VP of public policy and communications for Bayer of Toronto, which markets Levitra in association with GlaxoSmithKline. ‘The whole category is new and each drug provides a new option. We’re planning to make Levitra as much a household name as Viagra.’

Grant says Bayer is confident it can seize a sizeable share of a burgeoning market, partially based on gleanings from its own research. The company conducted a sexual satisfaction survey last year, for example, which found that 88% of patients with ED would try a new drug, while 96% of physicians are willing to prescribe one.

For its part, industry Goliath Pfizer, whose category-creator Viagra accounts for 80% of all ED prescriptions, says it isn’t worried. In fact, says Pfizer spokesperson Sophie McCann, the company welcomes the competition because new entrants are likely to help grow the market.

The most recent Viagra campaign, developed by Toronto agency Taxi and launched in March, continues and expands a marketing message that began five years ago, McCann says.

‘Essentially, we have always tried to break down barriers and taboos,’ McCann explains. ‘Encouraging men to talk to their doctors and to let them know that they are not alone.’

McCann says the company has focused its marketing efforts on television – despite the launch of a major print campaign featuring ordinary Canadians this spring (see cover image) – because TV is powerful in its ability to change perceptions. She adds that the company has no plans to stray from its marketing strategy: ‘There’s no point in fixing what isn’t broke.’

Meanwhile, the new ED contenders appear to be taking note of the need to educate consumers, if taking a slightly different route to winning them over.

For example, Levitra’s marketing campaign – which Bayer unleashed in late March – is built around a national television campaign featuring the Welcome Back melody from the popular ’70s television show Welcome Back Kotter. The ads are intended to educate consumers, let men know that they are not alone, and boost self-esteem, Grant explains.

The company is supporting the television launch with Levitra billboards appearing in high-profile locations in Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver.

Meanwhile, the message in the two 30-second spots for Toronto-based Eli Lily’s Cialis strikes a slightly different note by raising awareness among men with erectile dysfunction, as well as their partners. In both commercials, the music plays as a super reads ‘The Weekend is Here.’

The tag is a recognition that the weekend is often a time of relaxation and viewers are meant to draw the conclusion that it’s a time that couples are likely to find intimate moments together. Created by Grey Worldwide in Toronto, the ads launched on Valentine’s Day.

A second phase of the direct-to-consumer campaign launches at the end of the month and includes print advertising in national magazines such as Reader’s Digest, office tower washroom ads and outdoor billboards, along with boom ads in parking lots. The creative, which will run in major cities across the country, shows men in relaxing settings, such as enjoying the outdoors, and the call to action ‘Ask your doctor.’ The tagline is ‘Relax, Cialis is here.’

The drugs from all three companies work in a similar fashion, blocking an enzyme that limits blood flow. However, Cialis has been dubbed ‘le weekend’ pill in France because its effect can last for as long as 36 hours – compared to four hours for Viagra. And Levitra is being promoted for how fast it starts to work.

Can the two latecomers play catch-up? Strategy asked a panel of marketing gurus for their feedback.

Shawn King, CD, Extreme Group, Halifax

I think Viagra has to stick to their game plan. As far as I’m concerned they own the category. Even the international ads I’ve seen for Viagra have the same thing in common: a light-hearted approach to a sensitive topic. It works for them. They’ve become much like the Kleenex of tissues. Wait…bad example.

The point is, I get the feeling no matter what pill people are taking, they’ll likely refer to it as Viagra.

It has become the category brand icon.

In some senses you could say Viagra has made it easier for the new guys. They started the conversation and now people want to talk about it. The groundwork has already been done.

Having said that, I’m sure it’s possible to gain on Viagra, but it won’t be easy. I believe this is one of those products where it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.

I don’t believe the products are that different. I mean, they’re all meant to do the same thing aren’t they?

So, when it comes to choosing which one to go with, how will I choose? Probably by choosing the one that makes me feel the most comfortable with the issue.

The one that’s managed to put a positive spin on a touchy subject. Who knew?

Terry Johnson, president, Allard Johnson Communications, Toronto

It’s difficult to fault the strategy that Pfizer has been following with Viagra. First, they prepared the market with doctors, and then educated consumers about erectile dysfunction. Lately they have been branding their product with consumers, turning Viagra into a badge of reassurance through the ‘Good Morning’ and the ‘My Way’ campaigns.

The new competitors, Cialis from Lilly, and Levitra from Bayer and GlaxoSmithKline, have really just got started in Canada. From what I’ve seen, Levitra is investing in a consumer campaign targeted at patients who didn’t get the response they were seeking from Viagra.

Cialis seems to be placing greater emphasis on the product’s potential advantages (effectiveness for a longer time period and fewer side effects). But Cialis’ messages are targeted to doctors, because Canadian regulations restrict prescription brands from advertising features and benefits to consumers.

There’s plenty of room in this category for two or three strong brands. I suspect Viagra will just continue to associate its brand with positive feelings.

We’ve seen data that in the U.S., Viagra is continuing to grow, even as the new guys are eating up share. Now in the doctors’ office, there could be the real warfare about which products work best; after all, the docs still have to write the scrips.

Neil McOstrich, president and CCO, ACLC Advertising, Toronto

Leadership is about staying one step ahead. Take Nike, for instance. They’d do a campaign, the world would take a year to copy it and by that time, Nike’d be on to something else. That’s how I suspect Viagra will behave.

It is possible that the others could challenge Viagra’s position, but to do so they’re gonna have to dig a little deeper and find their own insights. Some years ago, I marveled at the Visa campaign ‘It’s Everywhere You Want To Be’ and quietly wondered how the hell anyone was going to beat that positioning. Then MasterCard came up with ‘Priceless.’ A brilliant response based on an ownable, globetrottingly campaignable insight. So it can be done.

Whether or not the other pharmaceutical companies can usurp Viagra will depend on their mind-set. If they are content to ride with the category growth, they will continue to execute their slice of life advertising. If their intent is nothing short of a crushing victory, they’re going to need a giant-killing insight.

When Michelin used babies and the line ‘Because so much is riding on your tires,’ they did so upon the insight that those who drove their pregnant wives to the hospitals at 100km/hr also drove away with their newborns at 5km/hr. If these guys are going to challenge Viagra, they’re going to need a similarly compelling thought.

And again, as my examples of Michelin and MasterCard show, the work doesn’t have to scream, it just has to whisper the right insight.

As for my big idea in the category? What if the honeymoon capital of the world was renamed: Viagra Falls.