Take Two Aspirin and Call Me in the Morning – Branding Can Cause Headaches

W. Eugene Smith's 'Country Doctor' was an instant classic when first published in LIFE in 1948.

W. Eugene Smith’s ‘Country Doctor’ was an instant classic when first published in LIFE in 1948.

Take two aspirin and call me in the morning. That was doctors’ advice for any undetermined malady when I was growing up. It became a running gag, and joke or not, it signified the strength of the aspirin brand. So, as a child of the fifties and sixties, I was surprised by a recent TV ad from German pharmaceutical giant, Bayer, that depicts a man with back pain on an international plane flight. The flight attendant suggests aspirin, to which the passenger responds, “I’m having back pain, not a heart attack.”

Aspirin was the pain standard relief standard when I was a kid. But, by the mid-to-late seventies, Tylenol and its generic equivalents had chipped away at aspirin’s market share after Tylenol became available without a prescription. Availability of non-prescription ibuprofen in the 80’s helped make aspirin an asterisk in the pain relief market.

But, aspirin sales were far from dead. As the biochemical properties of aspirin became better understood, studies pointed to its potential to stave off coronary artery disease. “By the end of the 1980s, aspirin was widely used as a preventive drug for heart attacks and had regained its former position as the top-selling analgesic in the U.S.,” according to a history of the medicine.* (Technically, “analgesic” refers only to a pain reliever. But, you get the idea.) Sales of aspirin were high, but for a use different from the one my pediatrician and I had come to know. Bayer, an industrial powerhouse, had neglected their cornerstone pain relief brand.Bayer logo

The commercial on the airplane seems to be Bayer’s attempt to go back to the future; to recapture the analgesic branding of a still dominant drug.

Brands can be subtle and fragile and ephemeral. That’s part of what makes effective branding one of the hardest things to do in marketing. As other of my posts discuss, technology companies are often dominated by engineers and scientists who do not get or appreciate all the aspects of marketing. Marketers in large companies can get short shrift. In many small techs, there are no marketers. (No, the sales folks don’t count.)

As a veteran of Texas Instruments, I can attest to the truth of the old joke about that company (and so many other big engineering-driven firms): “If TI had to market sushi, they would advertise cold, dead fish.” If Bayer can lose sight of a major brand, you can, too.

* Diarmuid Jeffreys. Aspirin: The Remarkable Story of a Wonder Drug. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2005. ISBN 1-58234-600-3.

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