C’est la vie! Sanofi-aventis alters name and refines strategic game

The French pharma giant goes for a shorter moniker, says “no” to a product acquisition and looks toward integration and expansion plans

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PARIS—While individually they wouldn't rate as groundbreaking news, several bits of news have added up this week to signal that change is in the air at sanofi-aventis, among them a corporate name change, a decision to pass on a particular drug and the unveiling of a new logo.
First, that name change. If there's one thing most of us in the journalistic community can agree on, it's that none of us could agree since 2004—after a merger between French companies Sanofi-Synthelabo and Aventis—on whether the company's name should be written as sanofi-aventis (the official corporate version), Sanofi-Aventis, or Sanofi-aventis. Well, that problem no longer exists, as the company rolled out its new name, Sanofi, a revamped website and a new logo as it released the announcement of the results of its combined general shareholder meeting May 6. The whole process was done with very little fanfare, though—just a video on the home page about the logo and the announcement of the name change buried almost at the end of the news release about the shareholder meeting and handled with a single sentence.

However, the company has, through spokesperson Jack Cox, said a bit more about the name change, noting that part of the reason was that many people already shortened it to Sanofi and because the company wanted its name to be recognizable and easy to pronounce around the world—the latter point reiterated by Sanofi CEO Chris Viehbacher to shareholders in Paris on May 6. In fact, another Sanofi spokesperson, Jean-Marc Podvin, has noted in the past specifically that a six-syllable name is apparently difficult to pronounce in some countries, such as China.

That has no small amount of significance, as Sanofi, which is France's largest drugmaker, wants to expand in emerging markets such as China and India.

In fact, on May 11 Sanofi announced its latest foray into Asia: a public-private partnership with China's Ministry of Health, Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Chinese Diabetes Society to launch an integrated diabetes management program called "China Initiative for Diabetes Excellence." The five-year effort is aimed at delivering patients-centric, integrated diabeted management "that can succeed at the community and county level."

In other news coming out around the same time, Sanofi reported that it isn't interested a diet pill from GlaxoSmithKline anymore, with Viehbacher saying after the annual investor meeting in Paris, "We're definitely not buying Alli," though he remained mum with the media as to whether Sanofi may buy other consumer health-care assets being sold by GSK. The U.K.-based drugmaker recently reported that Alli and Lactacyd soap are among 19 consumer healthcare assets it wants to sell this year as it focuses on brands that are considered higher priority, such as Sensodyne toothpaste. Some have speculated that Sanofi might still buy GSK's Valda cough drops even though it passed on Alli, as Sanofi has been expanding its presence in consumer healthcare products to reduce its reliance on drugs that are facing generic competition, like Plavix and Lovenox.

Viehbacher has told investors that searching for new blockbusters "isn't a goal" for Sanofi, with the focus instead on what he considers more sustainable revenue bases, like consumer and animal healthcare. Plus, with the $20.1 billion acquisition of Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Genzyme Corp. recently, Sanofi gained the largest maker of medicines for rare genetic disorders, which means it will likely have innovative drugs to bring to market that aren't likely to face generic copies any time soon. Also in that vein, Viehbacher says a major focus is to integrate Genzyme more fully into the Sanofi fold, as well as the Merial animal health unit.

Which is not to say that Sanofi isn't looking for more purchases as it forges ahead with strategic tweaks and a new name, with Viehbacher telling shareholders that the company may make more acquisitions of the less-dramatic kind like it did before Genzyme, and that Sanofi continues looking for purchases in emerging markets. Also, he says, share buybacks also will be "an option going forward, whereas two years ago, they didn't make sense."

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