Always judge an OTC product by its cover

Really? Haven’t we been taught our whole lives not to judge a book…

Let me stop you right there.  The fundamental difference between a book and an over-the-counter pharmaceutical product is that one of them you WANT to buy and one of them you HAVE to buy and, typically, in a rush.  In this day and age, most consumers don’t have the time or energy to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of products they are perusing on the shelves.  This short window of time for assessment only dwindles further when someone is picking up a quick-fix medication for whatever annoying ailment has brought them into the store. 

So first impressions count then? 

Very much so.  Without the luxury of time to research all the brands and products on offer, consumers use a shortcut to make that decision: they look at the packaging.  The packaging that has to get across the product name, the use, the brand sentiment and a whole host of legal and medical statements, all the while trying to shout the loudest on the shelf.

Sounds a bit tricky. It’s a wonder anything ever makes it to market and stays there. 

Every year 95% of new products fail.1

So what did OTC brands like Gaviscon do right then? They are everywhere. 

Brands like Gaviscon from big companies like Reckitt Benkiser have huge advertising budgets to keep front of the consumers’ mind.  It also helps that, being a first-to-market and global leader means that Gaviscon’s branding is deeply associated with heartburn and indigestion.  Competitors with me-too products, such as Boots and Superdrug, often use similar colours and visuals in their product packaging to these mega brands.  They ride the coat tails of the brands that have created and shaped market segments.

But if you’re not a giant with all the money to throw at the launch of a new OTC, what can you do to make your OTC product packaging work harder for you? 

Let’s look at what our cousins over in the consumer industry are up to.  Premiumisation is a phenomenon that has seen sales rocket in commoditised products in recent years.  Take bottled water for example.  The global bottled water market is highly fragmented with a large number of local players in most countries.  Convincing customers to pay more should be hard when your product doesn’t have a distinctive taste and an alternative is freely available from the tap in most rich countries.  So, to stand out among numerous competitors with a product that is about as basic as it comes, many brands have deviated from the traditional approach in order to cut through the noise.  The premium bottled water market is booming, reaching global sales of $16.5bn in 2017, and as a category growing 8% a year.2

Positioning free water as sexy to sell it at a higher price, genius!

The first step is nailing the positioning.  Next is creative execution starting with the packaging. An example of a recent success story achieving just this is Propercorn.  They were a new entrant to the market a few years ago but has recently become the best selling popcorn in the UK.3  Headed up by ex-BBH’s Cassandra Stavrou, the brand started with beautiful and distinctive packaging.  This distinctive packaging translated into adverts, and those adverts fed into all event branding.  One packaging design taken through all promotional channels in both ATL and BTL advertising.  And what happens when you see that packet as you are choosing your snack of choice in the corner shop- brand recollection to the max.  Now that’s going in the shopping basket. 

*Munching popcorn* Works for me, but have you applied this strategy to a healthcare brand? 

Yes. Look out for the launch of Artelac (an eye drop brand) from Bausch + Lomb hitting the shelves soon. 

This article was written by Nicky King, Co-founder and Director at ARK Agency based in Covent Garden.  The agency was launched in April of 2018 and has already garnered 9 clients at both UK and Global level.  Its core offering is data-driven creativity with a focus on healthcare clients.

  1. Nobel, C. 2011. Clay Chritensen’s milkshake marketing. Harvard Business School Working Knowledge,
  2. Arther, R, 2018. Added value: Premium bottled water category growing at 8% a year. Beverage Daily, 
  3. Survell, J, 2017. The UK’s Bestselling Gourmet Popcorn In 2017. Forbes,