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Semprae Fights the Good Fight

1 Jun, 2011 By: Thomas Haire Response

Rachel Braun Scherl and Mary Wallace Jaensch use their years of experience — and a deep belief in DR — to back their women’s sexual health product, Zestra, against an obstacle-filled marketplace.

It’s an honor to be able to help women, but it’s also been a staggering marketing challenge,” says Rachel Braun Scherl, president of Semprae Laboratories Inc., marketer of Zestra, a women’s sexual health product that has created much buzz during the past year. “But the reaction that women have to Zestra — that it’s real, it’s authentic and it works — makes those challenges worthwhile.”

Scherl and business partner Mary Wallace Jaensch founded Semprae in 2008 with the goal of taking Zestra — then a product on the verge of bankruptcy — to a wider market of women. Each packet of Zestra contains a safe, natural, easy-to-apply blend of botanical oils and extracts that works by heightening a woman’s sensitivity to touch. Prior to the formation of Semprae, the product’s original marketers had tried a traditional retail launch with little success.

“It’s clear that one of the things that works best for Zestra is the integration of TV content, public relations and online media,” Jaensch says about how the duo has changed the product’s marketing. “What DR does in that space is it gives us the information we need to develop the right hypotheses to market the product even more effectively.”

Scherl and Jaensch each bring their own expertise to the Semprae team, but they also bring a long history of working together — a partnership that, through each transition, has brought them great success. It is that teamwork that has been crucial in addressing the many roadblocks the Zestra product has faced in recent years.

“In late 2009, we began running into clearance problems for our DRTV ads,” Jaensch says. “A lot of channels would not accept what we believed to be a very traditional DR product ad.”

Those problems elevated to such a point that the team began a powerful PR campaign in mid-2010 that — thus far — has netted them coverage from mainstream media outlets like Forbes, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, ABC’s “Nightline,” and daytime talk shows hosted by Rachael Ray, Tyra Banks and Dr. Oz.

Creating Semprae

“We both come from a packaged goods training background,” Jaensch says. Both have impressive educational resumes (Jaensch has an M.B.A. from Yale; Scherl’s is from Stanford) and their backgrounds point to an extensive knowledge of the pharmaceutical business.

Jaensch’s background includes stints at Richardson-Vicks and Procter & Gamble, where she managed brands including NyQuil and Olay. In 1989, she became a consultant with Delta Consulting, before becoming principal and owner at The Demeter Group, where she helped drive the growth of global consumer brands for Johnson & Johnson, Shiseido, Haagen-Dazs and Dannon.

Scherl, meanwhile, joined Johnson & Johnson’s McNeil Consumer Healthcare division after graduating from Stanford in 1992, working extensively on the Tylenol brand. She continued her relationship with Johnson & Johnson as a principal with consultancy Marketing Corporation of America, where she also worked with companies like American Express and Disney. During this stretch, she met Jaensch during an interview and found that they lived just a mile apart. “We did some projects together, starting in 1996,” Jaensch recalls.

In 1998, the pair combined forces to launch The Jannick Group LLC/SPARK Solutions for Growth. During the next decade, the firm provided strategy and marketing advice and expertise to Fortune 100 companies, including multiple divisions and operating companies of Johnson & Johnson, Wyeth, Deloitte & Touche, GlaxoSmithKline and Church & Dwight.

Jaensch says that The Jannick Group experience provided her and Scherl with the opportunity to “talk and listen to women often, especially about how their lives are changing.” That led to an immediate interest in Zestra, when the pair was introduced to the product’s founder and formulator in spring of 2008.

“With their financials, it became clear that the initial company that brought the product to market would have to file bankruptcy,” Jaensch says. “We were interested in what we could do with the product, so we got together with Quaker BioVentures to raise the money to start Semprae Laboratories. That summer, we bought the Zestra assets out of bankruptcy.”

Since then, Jaensch and Scherl have each created their own niches within Semprae’s operating structure. “We make every big decision together,” Scherl says. “But I handle the more outward-facing part of the business. I am the executor of the messages we develop. I handle PR, develop marketing strategies, handle media buying and am generally the face of the company for our PR efforts.”

Jaensch says she’s more involved in internal operations. “If a customer calls or visits the website thanks to marketing and PR efforts, I handle the backend of that customer service and my goal is to make the sale process as easy and friendly as possible,” she adds. “I work on retailer set-up, product manufacturing, financials.”

Rebuilding with Direct Response

Jaensch and Scherl’s complementary skills made the company structure clear. However, why did the duo believe DR marketing would be the right answer for Zestra, a product that had struggled mightily with a traditional retail rollout?

“We looked at the Proactiv Solution business model for Johnson & Johnson when we owned The Jannick Group,” Jaensch says. “We were fascinated by their work, and when we looked at the traditional OTC (over-the-counter) launch that had happened with Zestra initially, we saw a number of problems that could be addressed by that model.”

Jaensch contends that the initial owners of Zestra raised about $9 million dollars, well short of what it takes to fund a retail rollout. But, she adds, “Zestra has so many of the attributes of Proactiv — you know in 10-15 minutes whether there is a demonstrable before-and-after testimonial. Those who bought the product liked buying and using for various occasions, and we knew that 50 percent of men’s erectile dysfunction drugs are purchased online —another natural fit for a DR campaign. Zestra is also a natural as a continuity product, and from our research on Proactiv, we knew DR and the Web would be the most practical way to test the market.”

Scherl adds, “In looking at DR vs. retail, we thought we could find out more about our customers more quickly through DR and online than we could through multiple $100,000 retail analyses. We could see where they were from, what drove them, when they called, whether they are male or female. And, from a continuity angle, we thought we could create a longer-term, more profitable relationship with our customers.”

With a mantra of “test and learn,” according to Jaensch, Semprae spent its first 12 months marketing Zestra, making tweaks and building a modest market base. “We kept it in retailers where it made sense from packaging and positioning,” Jaensch says. “But we re-launched our E-commerce website in April 2009 and used tests of DRTV from May to September of that year to optimize our offer and media plan.”

By August, the company found it had two offers that worked well, had located the channels that were working best and had started getting positive PR. Things seemed to be on track for an explosion of success. It was then that Jaensch and Scherl first experienced what would become a recurring obstacle: clearance issues for their DRTV spots.

No Clearance?

“With claims around arousal, desire and satisfaction for women, we began to have trouble getting our spots cleared by many cable networks,” Jaensch says. “There was no nudity, nothing risqué in the spots, yet a majority of networks would not accept them.”

At the same time, the Semprae team was having success online, buying branded keywords. However, they also found limits in that space. “Keywords can be expensive, and many of the words we were looking at were also tied up by the porn industry,” Jaensch says. “Getting lost in those search results is not good for us.”

The company was forced to continue to find online solutions. “We run banners and flash ads with no naked bodies, no beds, no curling toes,” Jaensch says with a laugh. “We had an ad called ‘Bus Ride,’ which was working well for us, so we decided to try to tie it together efficiently. It was running on SoapNET, one of our best TV channels, so we decided to take a web campaign mirroring the spot to and Neither would accept the campaign.”

Still, against these stacked odds, Semprae’s cost-per-order (CPO) and other metrics were still working. In spring 2010, the company hired Thor Associates and DR industry veteran Fern Lee (a member of the Response Editorial Advisory Board) to optimize its DRTV metrics. “On the networks that would clear us, we wanted to make sure we were getting our best efficiencies,” Jaensch says. “Working with Fern, we were able to cut our CPO by 25 percent in just a couple months.”

With Lee’s help — and that of their attorneys — Jaensch and Scherl continued to tweak their TV and online ads to gain clearance. “Our metrics were to scale, but we couldn’t grow because we had an issue with access to media,” Jaensch says.

It was then that Zestra’s public relations efforts took hold and changed the game. “We have an opportunity for a safe, topically applied, effective product to come to market — one that worked with a wide range of women, yet we couldn’t get it out there,” Scherl says. “So we took to a huge PR campaign to get that message out.”

The story initially broke on Sept. 14, 2010 in a New York Times piece. “We were on ‘The View’ that day, and — within weeks, we’d been on ‘Good Morning America,’ ‘Nightline,’ in and a number of regional newspapers,” Scherl says.

But did the PR success affect network and online clearance? “There’s been essentially no impact on clearance, but it helped sales and helped our knowledge of our customer base.”

The challenges continue right up to today. Scherl talks about an ad on Facebook that was approved on Feb. 3, 2010, but was taken down — with no more than a cursory explanation — on Feb. 28. “At the same time, we worked with WebMD to create an online ad that specifically fit all of their specs, but at the end, WebMD refused to clear it,” Scherl says.

Another deal with NASCAR to sponsor one of the driver’s cars during races fell through when NASCAR couldn’t get ESPN’s approval to run Zestra ads during the races, Scherl says. And the pinnacle (or nadir, depending on your perspective) of all of this comes in this story about TMZ.

“We had reached an agreement with TMZ for editorial, supported by Zestra ads,” Scherl says. “A week after the discussion, the TMZ team told us, ‘We can do the integration, but only in reruns of syndicated shows.’ A week later, they came back again with a blanket no — no integration, no ads.”

Pushing Back … and Ahead

So how are Zestra’s campaigns working today, within these strictures? “We’re running more of a hybrid campaign on TV now,” Jaensch says. “Our older spots are still more efficient and effective, with good return. We just updated them with newer testimonials and launched around Memorial Day. Our newer spot, called ‘Secret,’ was the latest to face clearance issues, so we softened the sell and got some additional clearance. It doesn’t work as well from a sales standpoint, but it does provide us some insight on our customers and how DR tactics work best to reach them.”

Scherl says the Discovery Networks have long been Zestra’s best home on television, but she still talks about the clearance challenges that led to the creation of the “Secret” campaign and the issues they continue to create.

“Last fall, we decided to design a commercial for the express purpose of getting it cleared,” she says of the “Secret” campaign. “There’s so little of the information that was causing clearance issues in the spot, but the message isn’t clear enough to drive purchase — just interest. We have the same regulatory status as the KY product from Johnson & Johnson, and they’re everywhere with their campaign. It seems the standards are applied differently.”

Prompted to expand on that thought, Scherl doesn’t hold back. “It is a series of double standards,” she contends. “However, what continues to be clear is the huge consumer interest in the product, advertising or not. Even men run to the phone and the Web to order when we get PR hits. Dr. Oz recommended Zestra on his show on Feb. 8, 2010, and during that time we watched the waves and spikes of sales come in during each airing across the nation. There is an immediate drive to purchase — not just interest.”

Still, Jaensch and Scherl believe that a strong combination of DR and online marketing is crucial to driving the product’s continued success. Scherl praises the company’s partners and vendors for their work and patience during the campaigns. “Fern and Thor have been our most crucial partners, but we’ve used Mercury Media for TV buying and MPW for radio,” she says. “We’re working with LiveOps as our call center, but have also worked with others large and small in the past. CWC in North Carolina is handling fulfillment — there are a lot of relationships, but across the board what we’ve asked all vendors is to do for us what they’ve done successfully for others before. And we’ve had great luck in that.”

Jaensch adds that the company’s vendors have confirmed the Semprae team’s belief that DR is the right model for Zestra. “DR lets us know more about customers and helps us navigate the walls we’ve come up against,” she contends. “If we’re going to be stuck with slightly less efficient lead programs due to clearance issues, each customer needs to be worth more to us. And DR allows us to find those high-value customers, as well as go back and mine lapsed users more effectively.” ■

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