Branding The Placebo Effect

For many years I’ve admired the positioning work behind the Nurofen brand of painkiller. They positioned the product as “targeted relief from pain” and had a wonderful demo that visually demonstrated how the product could target specific areas of pain.

Reckitt Benckiser had several products that addressed specific pain areas, including Nurofen Back Pain, Nurofen Period Pain, Nurofen Migraine Pain and Nurofen Tension Headache. Brilliant marketing…although it was not quite truthful.

You see, all the products contained exactly the same active ingredient in the exact same dosage. In fact, all that was different was a different package and label. And the active ingredient does not fly around and locate itself where the pain is…it works throughout the body.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission brought down the house of cards and levied a $6 million fine because the company “had profited substantially from misleading customers.”

Legally this was the right thing to do. But from a drug effectiveness standpoint, it probably was wrong. You see, the placebo effect in drugs is very high. Placebos cannot lower your cholesterol, but they can alter your perception of pain. For example, studies have shown that red pills relieve pain better than any other color. Imagine what the very specific positioning of these Nurofen products could do. Even with the same active ingredient and dose, the placebo effect ensures that your period pain would be better relieved by a specific product like Nurofen Period Pain rather than a generic ibuprofen.

I’m not suggesting that misleading consumers is a good idea. Rather, I’m acknowledging that the placebo effect exists and it can be used to imply effectiveness via very specific brand names (just please make something different in the product…not just a label!).

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