Thursday, January 12, 2006

Airborne: Neither Vitamin nor Aspirin

In product marketing, it’s often said that you are either selling aspirin (making the customer’s pain go away) or vitamins (making a normal situation better). So how should we view Airborne, a line of products associated with preventing colds?

Last Sunday’s New York Times tell us that Airborne had $90 million in sales in 2004, despite carrying a disclaimer on the box that says Airborne is “not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.” Technically, Airborne’s main product is a dietary supplement, untested by the Food and Drug Administration.

The Times article all but grimaces at Airborne’s success via folksy marketing, which includes cartoons on the box and the tag line “Created by a Teacher!” But are the people who collectively buy $90 million worth of Airborne irrational and/or deluded? When you think of Airborne as a medicine, perhaps so. But when you think of it as an insurance product, where a few dollars may buy you better odds on a plane flight during cold season, it’s more plausible.

Thinking that way makes Airborne seem like a vitamin. And if we were to look at the ingredients, Airborne would indeed qualify for something in the vitamin or herbal remedy aisle. But here’s the twist: Per the folksy marketing, Airborne targets the everyman and everywoman, not the echinacea-chomping types who frequent the vitamin aisle. The result is a cross-over product: a vitamin (literally) that is often sold next to the aspirin (figuratively)—or, to untangle the medicinal metaphor, next to the Tylenol and Sudafed, both of which Airborne now outsells.

So, although the “Created by a Teacher!” positioning is enough to make me, and maybe you, reject Airborne out of hand, the lesson here is that millions of people were waiting for this product and, more important, its positioning. They just needed their vitamins repackaged as something more like, but not quite, aspirin.

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