Case Detail

Case Summary

The Case of Synthroid (A): Marketing a Drug Coming Off Patent

Case Number: 5-312-506(A), Year Published: 2013

HBS Number: KEL728

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Authors: Alice TyboutJulie Hennessy; Natalie Fahey; Charlotte Snyder

Key Concepts

Branding, Ethics, International Marketing, Health Care, Marketing, Marketing Strategy, Pricing Strategy, Strategic Positioning


The case tells the story of Synthroid from its development in 1958 as the first synthetic thyroxine molecule to its competition against generic equivalents in 2004. The case introduces students to the pharmaceutical industry, its practices, and some of the complexities of pricing and drug choice, with drug manufacturers, insurance companies, physicians, pharmacists, and patients all playing a role. It also provides a primer on hypothyroidism, its symptoms, and its treatment.

Because Synthroid was developed and introduced before FDA regulations and drug standards of identity were fully established, it was difficult for competitors to get their drugs certified as identical to Synthroid. Through a series of efforts with physicians, especially endocrinologists, Synthroid’s owners were able to maintain the perception for forty-six years that Synthroid was uniquely effective. In 2004, however, the FDA declared several competitive products to be bioequivalent to Synthroid, which posed a significant challenge to its owner, Abbott Laboratories. Students are challenged to consider options to maintain the drug’s unit volume, revenue, and/or profit in these difficult circumstances.

The case is written in two parts. The (A) case provides background on the history of the drug, the pharmaceutical industry and its marketing practices, and hypothyroidism and its treatment, and it concludes in 2004 as Abbott’s marketers face the impending challenge of defending the Synthroid business against generic competition. The (B) case describes what Abbott actually did to maintain its share in the United States and outlines its strategy in India, a market without patent protection for pharmaceuticals.

Spanish translation available.

Learning Objectives

After analyzing the case students should be able to:
• Describe strategies that branded competitors can use to defend their business from lower-priced competition
• Understand the basics of pharmaceutical marketing and pricing, including the global challenge of defending branded drugs against generic equivalents
• Discuss ethical issues in the marketing of high-margin branded products that have lower-priced alternatives, especially in the healthcare industry

Number of Pages: 19

Extended Case Information

Teaching Areas: Marketing

Teaching Note Available: Yes

Geographic: United States and India

Industry: Pharmaceutical

Organization Name: Abbott Laboratories

Organization Size: Large

Decision Maker Position: Marketing Manager

Decision Maker Gender: Female

Year of Case: 2004