Every year, employees at Hisamitsu Pharmaceuticals around the world spend a day passing out thousands of samples of its Salonpas pain patch to passersby. It’s marketing, and because it always happens on May 18, it’s also honoring a little company tradition.
Salonpas Day is on that day because because 5/18 in Japanese sounds similar to “ko (5) ri wo i (1) Ya(8) su” and that translates to “Relieve stiffness.” The Japanese traditionally like things wrapped in neat little packages and, in this case, that even extends to marketing.
This year, Hisamitsu will come to Philadelphia, passing out samples of its patch everywhere from the Liberty Bell to the 72 steps to the top of the art museum that “Rocky” made famous. The company has bought billboards on major highways leading into town. On May 18, a skywriter will hype the event.
Salonpas traces its roots to Kyushu, a southwestern Japanese island well known for its herbal remedies. Hisamitsu started peddling a pain poultice door-to-door 171 years ago. That became the precursor to the Salonpas transdermal drug patch idea, started in Japan in 1934, that is now sold over the counter today. It also explains the giveaways.
“Sampling is very much in our DNA,” says John Incledon, the president of Hisamitsu America. The mission statement for Salonpas Day has been, “Sampling for all customers. Everything for our customers.” It’s the same message from Tokyo to Tiananmen Square to Singapore, and last year, to New York
Incledon has passed out the pain patch on the streets, too.
“I learned about the general politeness of the people,” he tells Marketing Daily. That was in Japan. In New York, Incledon says, “It was a little mixed. Some people were maybe not so happy.” But even in New York, most were appreciative. “They’d say, ‘Oh, I always wanted to try that.’”
Salonpas takes its name as a kind of a mash-up of its active ingredient, methyl salicylate, and how it works, passing through the skin to arrive right where the pain is.
Even without free samples, many people have tried it. It has grown from a $17 million brand in 2010 two years after it got FDA approval as the first and only topical analgesic pain patch to a $119 million brand that Incledon says sold almost 700 patches per minute to consumers last year. It comes in several varieties including gels; the newest patch has a touch of lidocaine.
Salonpas is a regular advertiser on network evening newscasts, which are something of a de facto marketplace for older viewers. Incledon says over the counter pain relievers come aimed at two different groups; people under 40 or so who are mainly looking for headache cures, and older people for whom pain is mostly about aches.
That’s a growing groaning group. “As good as we’ve done,” Incledon says, “there’s still a lot of opportunity.”
One thing more about those commercials. All Salonpas spots end with a brief ID sting, with female voices singing, “Hisamitsu.” It seems to produce the kind of ear bug that lingers. Though it takes only a couple seconds, that’s a good chunk of space in a 15-second spot and company executives argue its merits.
Incledon can defend it. “Our company is trying to get more global,” he says, noting its drive to get its name more recognizable evidenced by it newly announced status as an official sponsor of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics games.
He also admits a lot of consumers tell Hisamitsu they think the sting is a kind of a pain.