Madeline Tallman, special to wtop.com
WASHINGTON - Instead of reaching for Tylenol or Motrin to cure your next migraine, the drug "Help, I have a headache" may just do the trick.
The medication is one of the products offered by Help Remedies, a start-up company from New York City that aims to make over-the-counter health care simpler for consumers. After making its name known around Manhattan, co-founders Richard Fine and Nathan Frank decided to expand their venture to the nation's capital where health care is a hot topic in the political atmosphere.
In November, the business partners opened a temporary pharmacy called a "Help Shop" on 10th Street NW in the former location of Waffle Shop across from Ford's Theatre. The goal of the pop-up shop was to sell products and spread the word about the company.
Olivia Bell, a sales representative at the D.C. Help Shop, says the store acted more like a gallery than a place of commerce. Much of the store was dedicated to describing the company's philosophy of simplifying the pharmaceutical business.
According to Fine, the company's CEO, health care problems are consistent at doctor's offices, hospital waiting rooms and on prescription labels. Everything is a confusing and difficult process, and health care providers do not make things easier, he says.
To try and fix that, Help Remedies sells single-active ingredient medications, which means that a sleeping pill is just a sleep aid with no extra dyes or other medications. The same goes for pain relievers, which have just one active ingredient in each pill.
"We really started this from a perspective that medicine needed a little more humanity and simplicity," Fine says. "We felt that there was a need to make health care in general simpler, easier, friendlier, more human."
The simplicity goes beyond the product with the names of each medication — like the sleep aid called "help I can't sleep."
Melinda Welch, product manager for Help Remedies, worked at the Help Shop until it closed on Nov. 27.
"It's been really neat having people discover the products for the first time," she says. "(We) explain our approach to simple medicine, and, you know, people get it."
Most people were drawn into the shop, not for the products, but for the "live windows," Bell says.
Bell hired people to perform tasks in the store windows to represent the need for different medications. For example, one man walked in high heels on a treadmill to promote the "Help I have a blister" bandage. Another man slept in a fluffy white bed to advertise the "Help I can't sleep" medication.
To add even more humor into the mix, Bell hired two models to man a kissing booth for the imaginary medication "Help I've never been kissed."
Bell says she found the people for the displays on Craig's List.
Inside the shop, medicine was displayed on one wall, while another wall featured T-shirts, in which proceeds from sales were donated to local charities.
This was especially attractive for Austin Mital, a customer from central Pennsylvania, who bought the "Help I'm stupid" shirt.
"I thought it was pretty cool because all the proceeds go to local schools," he says.
Another wall in the store demonstrated how quickly the medication packaging, made of paper pulp and cornstarch, biodegrades in a landfill. After three weeks, only the plastic lining of the packaging remains. The lining takes up to 100 years to disintegrate, and Fine says the company is working to reduce the time.
The design of the square packaging reminds some customers of cell phone apps, Bell says. Fine adds that Help Remedies appeals to a younger demographic and customers from other countries who are less familiar with over-the-counter medicines.
"If you don't understand the brands, you are totally dead in the water," says Fine, referring to over-the-counter medication.
Though Fine and Frank are not medical professionals, they have experience in advertising and marketing. Fine's parents studied epidemiology, but his medical background stops there.
The two launched Help Remedies in 2009 when they placed 10 products in various New York hotels and on Virgin America flights. In 2010, the company gained more momentum when products were sold in the New York pharmacy Duane Reed. Last year, Help Remedies medications were offered in Walgreens, and the products started selling in Target and CVS this year.
Help Remedies has also made an online presence with comical ads. For instance, one promotes headache relief for former presidential candidate Mitt Romney after losing the election and another suggests headache medication for Gen. David Petraeus due to his recent sex scandal.
Fine and Frank are now working to open more Help Shops in large cities around the country to further branch out from New York. Their pill names and creative marketing approach are just one step toward simplifying what they view as complicated health care.
"It you change the tone of an industry," Frank says, "you change everything else."
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