Five Sobering Lessons in Marketing From a Company That Sells Opioids
When is it time to pull the brakes on aggressive marketing methods?
“First, do no harm. Unless harming is incredibly profitable.” — Stephen Colbert.
As a seasoned tech entrepreneur, CEO, writer, and award-winning economist, I’ve read many business stories over the past years.
But one particular story made me lose sleep for weeks: The Empire of Pain by investigative journalist Patrick Keefe.
Keefe’s book is a biography of the Sackler family that revolutionized pharmaceutical advertisement in the 20th century and promoted one of the most scandalous painkillers in modern history: the opioid OxyContin (Oxy) — the drug that took the lives of thousands and left millions suffering from addiction.
Why should we care? Because it’s a story about marketing and leadership.
In particular, it’s a story of aggressive, effective promotion producing billions of dollars in returns — but also igniting a national crisis.
The five lessons below should help CEOs, CMOs, and CSOs become better leaders by understanding that with great marketing power comes great responsibility.
It Started With a Promising Idea
The Sacklers owned a small pharma company, Purdue Frederick.
Purdue was an underdog New York operation producing unglamorous drugs like an earwax remover or bottles of a laxative to treat your “delinquent colon.”
Yet, in 1996, the president of Purdue, Dr. Richard Sackler, introduced a new drug that would fuel one of the worst epidemics in US history: the opioid crisis.
Richard’s idea was revolutionary: he took a pill of a potent opioid painkiller and wrapped it in a slow-release coating. Dr. Sackler believed that his innovation would offer lengthy pain relief to the patient and eliminate all the opioid’s addictive potential.
He called his new drug “OxyContin.”
The only thing left for Richard was to market OxyContin to millions of patients. But first, he had to cope with one nagging problem.