A Cure For Promo’s Ailing Pharma Sales?

A new product innovation offers tantalizing possibilities for pharmaceutical branding.

For decades, pharmaceutical companies and promotional product distributors had a happy (and very lucrative) marriage. That all changed on January 1, 2009, when the pharmaceutical industry’s trade association officially banned the distribution of “non-educational items” to healthcare professionals. Millions of standard branded items like pens, mugs, notepads and countless other promotional staples were no longer allowed in doctors’ offices.

The two industries’ relationship has never been the same. In 2006, pharma was the number-one market for promotional products, accounting for 10.2% of overall industry revenue – a total of $1.9 billion. Nine years later, pharma comprised just 1.6% of total industry revenue, a total of $366.4 million and a mere fifth of its previous heights. The pharmaceutical industry is now the 18th largest market for promotional products.

The reason for the falloff is no secret. Under the guidelines instituted by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), permissible educational items must not be more than $100 in value “and do not have value to healthcare professionals outside of his or her professional responsibilities.” (As an example, an iPhone has educational capabilities but clearly has everyday value beyond the scope of health education.)

From brochure dispensers to new patient kits, there certainly are educational promotions that fit within the PhRMA guidelines. But compared to the pharmaceutical industry’s spending a decade ago, their impact remains limited, and distributors with pharmaceutical companies have wracked their brains coming up with new ideas that can be provided to doctors and patients.

George Pietropaolo, president of Winross, believes he has invented just a product: a drinking glass with a magnifying optical lens in the bottom that could aid the nearly 29 million American adults who have trouble seeing (and thus would struggle with reading instructions on their prescription pill bottles). The Institute of Medicine reports that roughly 500,000 medication errors occur outside of a hospital in the U.S. annually, owing to patients’ inability to follow medication instructions. “We feel the end user can benefit greatly from the correct use of this product,” Pietropaolo says.

Pietropaolo, an entrepreneur with involvement in a variety of industries, stumbled upon the idea two Christmases ago when he was having trouble reading the text of a magazine article. By happenstance, he slid a wine glass over the words, and the text became enlarged. He leveraged Winross and another of his companies – including their capabilities to die cast and print on cylindrical products – to create prototypes while researching potential uses. After discovering the mandates for educational items as required by PhRMA, the idea of a promotional product geared to the pharmaceutical industry began to take shape.

The final product is a non-breakable polycarbonate 14 oz. drinking glass (BPA-free) with an optical lens molded in the base. The lens magnifies text to six times its original size; a 10x lens is also possible, as well as a bifocal-like combination of the two. “Our application not only solves the problem of reading the small print,” says Pietropaolo, “it also allows you to take water with the prescribed medication.” Multiple types of printing on the glass are available, including ink, pad printing and UV curing.

Pietropaolo says that a legal review verified that the product qualifies as a patient educational device, and thus is excluded from the Physicians Payment Sunshine Act, which requires that medical product manufacturers report any payments or quantify the value of items transferred to medical professionals. Drug manufacturers have typically viewed those regulations as onerous, and “all the pharmaceutical companies are trying to figure out how best to work within the confines of the Sunshine Act,” Pietropaolo says. By offering an item that can be given to patients without the need to report a transfer of value, “it offers Pharma an unlimited opportunity for branding to millions of Americans.”

Winross, which is based in Rochester, NY, has created the product as a “Pharma Compliant Low Vision Device,” with similar functionalities to other low vision devices such as stand and handheld magnifiers and special magnifying eye glasses. The company will be working with the FDA to finalize required labeling (including specific how-to instructions) to qualify the drinking glass as a Class 1 Medical Device. Pietropaolo says responses were positive with a focus group at a senior living facility in Fairport, NY. “One participant suggested our device was easier to hold than a traditional hand-held magnifier because of her arthritis,” Pietropaolo adds.

PhRMA guidelines require that promotional products must have a direct connection to treatments and potential uses – typically a limitation with potential promotions. But because most drug therapies are ingested with water, Pietropaolo believes his company’s device can be paired with the vast majority of pharmaceutical manufacturers. (Guidelines state that names of drugs or therapies are not allowed to be put on products, but the drug manufacturer’s name and logo can be.)

Pietropaolo is open to multiple potential go-to-market strategies with the item, including automatic fulfillment with the purchase of a medication and an exclusive partnership with a drug manufacturer. (Inquiries about the product should be made to Pietropaolo at gp@winross.com). His hope is that his innovation can allow the promotional product industry to regain some footing in the pharmaceutical market: “We’re looking to take the handcuffs off with this particular product.