This Digital Marketer Made Ads for Allergy Medicine Feel Personal

Adweek’s 2016 Brand Genius winner for pharmaceutical

Almost from the day in 1995 that GlaxoSmithKline introduced Flonase, it was a runaway hit. The nasal spray alleviated seasonal allergy symptoms without causing drowsiness, and Americans (50 million of whom have allergies) clamored for a prescription. Flonase did $600 million in sales by 2000, and in 2005 raked in $1.3 billion. But Flonase's patent expired that year, opening the door to generic competitors. So when GSK returned to the market with an over-the-counter formulation last year, it needed an aggressive marketing plan. And digital marketing director Meredith Herman delivered it.

Departing from the pharma category's traditional reliance on TV advertising, Herman put digital front and center. "The allergy category is very competitive, and private label is never far behind," she says. "Search impressions are massive for this category. We couldn't afford to pay for every single click, so we had to win organic search."

Robert Ascroft

How? Herman drew from her personal experiences. As a seasonal allergy sufferer, and with a young son who's similarly afflicted, she knew firsthand how allergies can ruin everything. Research showed that her congested brethren "were pretty annoyed and frustrated that they end up missing out on activities and things they love to do," she says, and that insight inspired Flonase's new slogan: "Be greater than your allergies." Explains Herman: "We wanted to show the promise of an allergy-free life and to celebrate the things people love to do when they're allergy-free. The key to our strategy was to show how people are 'being greater.'"

Working with agency Wunderman Health (along with Weber Shandwick, Golin, PHD and Epsilon/Ryan), Herman developed a campaign around that theme. Two such subjects were members of the pseudonymous "Eh Bee" family. The group of influencers "hit our radar due to their impressive following across Vine, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook," Herman says. "They built up a strong following by sharing their fun, family-friendly, everyday-life videos." (The fact that the family's stage name suggested pollen, and hence allergies, was a plus.)

This past spring, Flonase sent the Eh Bees—along with country singer and TV personality Kellie Pickler—on "The Greater American Road Trip," chronicling the family's adventures in popular but pollen-y places like a Kentucky horse farm and Manhattan. "Our allergies have flared up, but that doesn't stop us from having fun as a family" thanks to Flonase, says Mama Bee in one video.

"We often talk about influencers and creators in cold, impersonal ways," says William Martino, managing director of Wunderman Health. "It was eye-opening to see how the Eh Bee family was able to connect with people on a personal level. The genuine love and humility they share with their audience is amazing, and seeing how that translated into the digital advertising and the success of the activation was very powerful."

Before GSK, Herman had already learned about creating digital work that was personal and genuine. She worked at R/GA when founder Bob Greenberg famously opined that "digital has forced us to make work that people really care about." Remembering those words, Herman says she was determined to "gut-check Flonase digital content against the thought, 'Would somebody really want to read this—will they have an a-ha moment?' That was and is our challenge, to flip the way we were communicating in OTC [with claim-based ads] to truly consumer-centric communications that people would read, share and discuss."

To that end, Herman augmented the Bee family tour and the website packed with news and sharable content with the "Be Greater Sweepstakes," a Twitter and Instagram contest inviting consumers to submit photos of themselves or their loved ones enjoying life allergy-free. The results were like a breath of fresh air. The Eh Bee push, which lasted two weeks, generated more than 1 million views and 1.3 billion impressions. Per IRI, Flonase generated sales of $100 million in the first 16 weeks after its launch. A year later, Flonase snagged 10 percent of the market. Nothing to sneeze at.

Check out all of Adweek's 2016 Brand Genius winners.

This story first appeared in the October 24, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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