Heavy Flu Season Has Medicine Brands Bringing More Ads Into Store Aisles

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Influenza activity is high across the country right now, with more than 13 million illnesses and 120,000 hospitalizations already reported this season, according to the CDC. The uptick in illness has over-the-counter cold and cough medicine brands looking to boost digital ad spend and exploring ways to target consumers based on circulation data that shows where respiratory illness is prevalent in real-time.

Over-the-counter cold and cough medicine brands spent an incredible $170 million combined through October 2022, according to data from the advertising intelligence platform MediaRadar, representing a 60% year-over-year increase and expansion from the $106 million invested during the same time in 2021.

Advertisers like Bayer, P&G, and Reckitt Benckiser are flooding the market with campaigns running across nearly every digital channel, including social, OOH, OTT, and display. To differentiate themselves from competitors, some brands are also investing in in-store retail media that places their messaging as close to the point-of-decision as possible.

One of the adtech companies that’s been tasked with delivering on those lofty expectations is Cooler Screens, an in-store retail media platform that turns the refrigerator doors in supermarket cooler aisle into Internet-enabled devices with ads. Among the many brands Cooler Screens is currently working with is Reckitt Benckiser’s Mucinex. As one of the top over-the-counter cold and cough spenders in the market, Mucinex has increased its ad spend by 68% year-over-year and 95% month-over-month in October.

“​​The need to differentiate versus other brands, or private label, is critical right now,” says Cooler Screens Chief Revenue Officer Lindell Bennett. “Why should shoppers buy from you and not someone else? What is the value you bring that matters most to them, and separates you in the decision-making process?” 

Bennett says being close to the point-of-purchase will continue to be a theme among OTC medicine advertisers this year, especially as the ROI of budgets is getting heavily scrutinized in the current economic conditions.

Real-time influenza surveillance data from the CDC shows where the influenza virus is most prevalent, giving brands the ability to adjust their campaigns and target the consumers most likely to be using their products in real-time.

“Location matters in multiple ways,” says Bennett. “Different geographies, or DMAs, have different levels of cold and flu intensity right now. [For example], Florida is a summer cold and flu season due to AC circulation, but colder climates are happening now. Within the store, you need to be either in high traffic areas, like the cooler aisle, or as close to the OTC section as possible, due to contextual relevance.”

With the flu season continuing to intensify, and activity expected to increase as families gather for Christmas later this month, ad spending by OTC medicine brands is expected to remain high. Thirty-three states are now experiencing “high” or “very high” respiratory virus activity, according to the CDC.

The severity of this cold and flu season is changing the dynamics from an advertising perspective. Bennett says there is a much higher intensity—more spend—over a greater period of time compared to previous years, when brands were placing shorter buys. In other words, cold and flu season is here, and OTC medication brands are looking at the data and seeing that the season won’t be over for a while. As a result, they are setting up campaigns that will run over an extended period of time.

In addition, Bennett says OTC medicine brands are also feeling a heightened need to differentiate and articulate value this year. Based on what he is seeing among brand advertisers, there’s currently more emphasis being placed on creative and messaging than imagery, and there is greater awareness of the importance of bringing messaging in-store, where 90% of OTC medication is bought.

“Money is going to where the people are, and as close to the point-of-decision as possible,” Bennett says. “You can get eyes and traffic from a lot of places, but being in the path-to-purchase and in places of high intent are more important than ever.”

Stephanie Miles is a journalist who covers personal finance, technology, and real estate. As Street Fight’s senior editor, she is particularly interested in how local merchants and national brands are utilizing hyperlocal technology to reach consumers. She has written for FHM, the Daily News, Working World, Gawker, Cityfile, and Recessionwire.