Is Excedrin Out of Its Mind?

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Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah University, Author of Honorable Influence, Founder of MindfulMarketing.org 

Businesses need to do many things well to be successful, but the most basic is getting people to buy their products.  So, why would a company that markets migraine medicine want to help people find other ways to deal with their headaches?  What is Excedrin thinking?!

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), maker of Excedrin, one of the world’s best-known pain management products, recently decided to target video gamers, a cohort whose long hours of intent focus on video screens often create the condition the brand is built to cure—headaches.

It’s not surprising that gamers are susceptible to headaches.  Research by Limelight Network found that video game players spend an average of six hours and 20 minutes a week participating in their pastime.  However, that average is deceptive:  Binge-gaming is on the rise, and most gamers report “having played for more than four hours consecutively.”

A ‘half-workday’ or more glued to a video screen could give anyone a migraine.  It’s not surprising, therefore, that Excedrin’s website claims that “89% of gamers have experienced gaming related headaches.”  It also adds that “80% simply play through the pain.”

Targeting gamers for headache remedies seems like a no-brainer, especially given Excedrin’s well-tailored creative strategy.  For instance, in a 15-second spot that looks like a video game, an animated Guardians-of-the Galaxy-like team called “the Healing Academy” rushes to the aid of a young gamer whose headache has him crying out, “I’m fading.”  Tablets taken, the gamer quickly recovers and the ad ends, “Excedrin, game over for headaches.”

GSK’s promotional mix includes several similar short spots as well as banner ads and sponsored posts on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.  The firm is also leveraging increasingly effective influencer marketing in the form of professional gamer Matthew “Nadeshot” Hagg, who has 1.6 million followers on the live game-streaming platform Twitch.

GSK’s strategy for targeting gamers seems very well-played.  However, there’s another part of the brand’s approach that could have many marketers hitting pause and that might make investors ill: Excedrin is also trying to help people avoid headaches.

On a company microsite specially created for gamers, the company references an exploratory study that tested “a simple 6-step routine to mindful gaming designed to improve focus and optimize performance in gamers.”  The six steps, which are designed to “help manage the risk of headaches,” include the following tips:

  1. Don’t play angry
  2. Look away from the screen for 20 seconds now and then
  3. Listen to some relaxing music after a long stretch
  4. Pause the game and relax your mind by sketching or doodling
  5. Put down the controller and give yourself a hand massage
  6. Close your eyes and do some deep breathing: inhale through your nose, exhale through your mouth

Excedrin has enlisted 12 Twitch influencers as hosts of branded gaming livestreams, the most notably being Nadeshot, who talks about “the six-step mindfulness routine” during his live play on Twitch.

At first glance, Excedrin’s migraine mitigation strategy sounds good—helping people avoid headaches is a noble endeavor—then one realizes that fewer headaches mean fewer pills popped, lower sales, and less income for the company.  It seems like Excedrin is creating a headache for itself.

The company’s strategy has made me wonder, what if I wrote an article, “Six reasons you shouldn’t attend college”?—it probably wouldn’t sit well with my university.  Likewise, would an attorney author, “How to represent yourself in court,” or a public accountant pen, “Why to do your taxes on your own”?  The likely answer to each is ‘no.’

However, there are other examples that affirm Excedrin’s tips for headache-avoidance.  An online search quickly led me to an article, “Safe Driving Tips to Help Avoid Collisions” by an unlikely contributor—an autobody repair shop.  Similarly, it may be surprising to see that a physical therapy center has published a piece, “Injury Prevention in Young Athletes.”  Aren’t these organizations jeopardizing their own bottom-lines?

The two different sets of examples create confusion because they conflate problems with solutions and preventive measures with cures.

Education, legal representation, and tax preparation are preventative solutions to the probable problems of unemployment, a negative legal judgment, and an audit by the IRS.  In the same way, safe driving helps to prevent car collisions and stretching helps avoid athletic injuries.

For an attorney, authoring “How to avoid a lawsuit” is different than writing “How to represent yourself in court.”  The first piece is an effort to help people prevent a problem, while the second is a possible solution that wouldn’t only divert business from the firm, things probably wouldn’t end well in court for the self-represented defendant.

So, Excedrin’s mindful gaming tips are preventative measures, aimed at avoiding a common problem for gamers.  Yes, fewer headaches mean less demand for migraine medication, but several other factors will likely more than offset any such sales decrease for GSK:

  • More consumers will know about Excedrin:  The public relations exposure that Excedrin is enjoying because of its educational efforts likely means that many more Gen Zers and others who had never heard of Excedrin before are becoming familiar with the brand.
  • The health tips will create goodwill and trust:  Consumers appreciate when companies do things for them without asking for anything in return.  Such benevolence builds goodwill.  It also engenders trust, as people are more likely to put faith in organizations that aren’t simply looking for sales.
  • The medicine will make its way into more people’s consideration sets:  I’ve been familiar with Excedrin for as long as I can remember, but I don’t think I’ve ever tried it; I’m not sure why.  I only ever consider Advil and Tylenol.  I’m not a gamer, but now I’m thinking of trying Excedrin sometime.
  • People will reciprocate:  Often when someone gives or does something for us, we wonder, ‘What can I do for them?’  Besides being more top-of-mind, Excedrin will benefit from people who have appreciated its headache advise buying the product as a way of repaying the company for its kindness.

So, even if Excedrin’s headache prevention tips stop some people from getting migraines, many more people will be familiar with the brand, appreciate its altruism, trust it intentions, add it to their consideration sets, and purchase the product, partly to reciprocate for its good deed.

Another way to view it is Excedrin is greatly increasing the top of its sales funnel, or its brand awareness, which will inevitably mean more consumers taking action.  Granted, the headache tips may somewhat reduce the need for migraine medicine, but gamers and others will still get headaches at times, and more of those who get them will now turn to Excedrin.

As significant as these consumer outcomes are, there’s another consequence of the company’s strategy that’s equally important:  the impact on employees.

People want to give their time and energy to worthwhile causes.  They want to work for organizations that have a meaningful purpose.  Probably few people get excited about making ‘pills,’ accounting for ‘pills,’ or marketing ‘pills.’  However, it would be motivating to work for an organization whose mission is to help people feel better so they can do what they want and need to do.

GSK seems to be such an organization.  The company’s “About us” webpage beings with:
“We are a science-led global healthcare company with a special purpose: to help people do more, feel better, live longer.”

The choice of words is telling.  GSK could easily say something like, ‘We want to be the premier producer of headache medications.  That wording, however, would suggest that the firm’s first priority is its bottom-line and that helping cure customers’ headaches is just a means of getting there.  Instead, GSK emphasizes that helping people feel better is what matters.

Employees, not to mention customers and investors, can get excited about that kind of a focus on a greater purpose.

Of course, individuals and organizations can put anything on a website.  That’s why Excedrin’s headache avoidance tips are so important:  They show that the company truly supports what it says:  It puts its medication where its mouth is.

When companies put people ahead of profit, something counterintuitive happens—they make money.

There are hundreds of pharmaceutical companies in the world.  According to Pharmaceutical Technology, GSK has annual revenues of over $44 billion, which makes it the world’s sixth largest pharmaceutical firm.  In 2020, GSK had income of over $7 billion. All that to say, GSK’s focus on helping people feel better appears to be paying off.

One way to know that someone loves you is seeing them sacrifice something to make you happy.  Whether people buy its medications or not, GSK seems to want people to be happy.

It may look strange for a company to lead prospects to a solution that avoids its products.  However, such a selfless approach does not go unnoticed; in fact, it’s one that most people find endearing.  Excedrin’s effort to prevent headaches before they happen isn’t naïve; it’s actually “Mindful Marketing.”


About the Author: Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah University, Author of Honorable Influence, Founder of MindfulMarketing.org