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How one molecule helped write a new chapter in UCB history

Posted by
Albert Leroy, Global Marketing Operations
The year was 1987. Ronald Reagan was President of the United States, Spain and Portugal had just joined the EU, Maria Sharapova and Andy Murray had just been born, Michael Jackson released the ‘Bad’ album, and the Eurovision Song Contest was held in Brussels, Berlin was still divided in two.

I had been with UCB for four years and had just been appointed brand manager in Belgium for a new medicine, Zyrtec® (Cetirizine),  a product that would help transform the company’s reputation, revenues and R&D pipeline.

Our new medicine for people with allergies was about to take us on a fantastic adventure. Already then, UCB was a growing company, although perhaps not as well-known as some big-name rivals – at least in the allergy field. So I had my work cut out.

Our new antihistamine had great potential but there were already products from this class of medicine available and a competitor was preparing to unveil a new product at the same time.

In preparation for the launch, we worked with doctors and patients to raise awareness of the condition and the potential for effective treatment. It was a lot of work but there was a great deal at stake so we had to get it right.

Belgium was the first market where our new antihistamine would be launched so the success (or failure) of our efforts would have a major impact on the company. We needed the Belgian launch to go well to demonstrate to patients that this is a new medicine which could make a difference to their lives. There was pressure but it was exciting – we were like Anderlecht competing in the Champions league!

In November, 1987, the product was launched in little Belgium , birthplace of UCB.  One year later, it was already the most widely used antihistamine in Belgium. It was a huge confidence boost for the whole company. Within two years the product had been launched all over Europe and had taken the number 1 spot in most countries where it was available. The product was launched in 1996 in the US and in 1998 in Japan. It was UCB’s first truly worldwide brand. It helped establish our company’s footprint on the global map

Turning point
This had been a major test for UCB. It was our first big launch for several years so all eyes were on us. Yes, we had a great product. But observers had wanted to see whether we could turn this into a commercial success.

The fact that we showed we could compete with the companies who had previously led the field in allergy treatments – and the fact that the medicine was a product of a UCB research project – was a game-changer for the company.

The image of UCB had shifted. Our reputation for investing in innovative medicines that improve the life of patients was established. We were entering a virtuous cycle. Patients believed we could help improve their life; doctors knew we could give them new therapeutic options; and investors realised we had the capability to turn scientific know-how into financial results.

For other large companies, some of whom we partner with, the success reinforced our standing as a strong player in the market.  All of this enabled us to invest even more heavily in research which allowed us to develop some of the leading treatments for diseases such as epilepsy and rheumatoid arthritis.

Today, the antihistamine we launched 25 years ago is still a popular choice for the treatment of allergies all over the world and we have surpassed 35 billion patient days of treatment.

In the years that followed we have developed new treatments for allergies – and much else besides. We’ll continue to invest in products that will help us write the next chapters in our shared history but, for me, this was one to remember. But you know what; I am still waiting for Anderlecht to win the Champions League…