July 29th, 2010

Sub-Context in the Medicine Aisle

By Kyle Morich

Just saw this article from the NY Times about Novartis giving away a quarter million bottles of Triaminic, a fever reducer and pain reliever, under the slogan “Restock Your Medicine Cabinet.”   According to the Times:

The Swiss drug giant Novartis plans to give away up to 250,000 bottles of its new liquid children’s medicine, Triaminic Fever Reducer Pain Reliever, in an effort to woo parents frustrated by a nationwide recall and shortage of a competing product — liquid children’s Tylenol.

McNeil Consumer Healthcare, the Johnson & Johnson unit, recalled an estimated 136 million bottles of liquid children’s Tylenol and other pediatric medications in April because of manufacturing deficiencies.

What Novartis is doing is attempting to break a habit by taking advantage of sub-context.  They could be very successful, but only if they recognize how difficult habit-breaking can be.

We all form habits within a particular context.   The Context of a habit is actually three layers – a Meta-Context, a Contextual Event, and Sub-Context.  What we call sub-context are basically vectors of concern – health, economy, family, morals, etc – that are normally latent, or silent.  This is because the majority of our habits align with our goals and intentions.  But when a sub-context issue becomes elevated (say, by an economic recession, or in Tylenol’s case, by a recall and shortage), unconscious behaviors are thrown into conscious consideration.

Novartis has very cleverly taken advantage of an elevated sub-context factor (family/safety for some, convenience for others).  So will this be successful?  It depends on repetition.

Eventually, the sub-context issues are going to fade away.  Tylenol will get their children liquid product back on the shelves, and news stories about manufacturing issues will diminish.  What Novartis has to hope is that before this happens, they get former habitual Tylenol buyers to perform enough repetitions of buying the medicine in context to usurp or replace the old habit.  And I don’t think this will happen.

Buying a children’s pain reliever/fever reducer is (hopefully) not a frequent event.  More likely, the habitual Tylenol buyers, who always purchase Tylenol’s analgesics, cold remedies, and children’s products, will continue to buy liquid children’s Tylenol in the future, even if they tried a free bottle of Triaminic.  Once the medicine buying behavior goes back to an unconscious state, the consumer is not going to be thinking about the promotion, and will go back to whatever they used to buy.

But not all hope is lost for the Swiss druggists.    New families, shoppers who are price conscious cherry-pickers, or other non-habitual medicine buyers could very well start a Triaminic habit through this promotion.  By establishing a context for purchasing the medicine through their slogan “Restock Your Medicine Cabinet,” they may organically create a new group of habitual purchasers.  Not the grand heist of Tylenol customers they were hoping for, but depending on who ends up with those free bottles, it could be a sizable, and profitable, group.


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