By Jenny Staletovich | April 2009
The Miami Herald
In the world of branding, there's a language all its own: Casodex, Grazax, Latisse, Symbicort and Vusion.
Each one of those words is the name of a drug that a team of branders spent hours devising, culling their final choices from a list of sometimes thousands of options. They may not make any sense now, but packaged with slick advertising and brought to you 24/7, they might one day become part of the lexicon. Just think Viagra, and all the jokes that sprang from that little blue pill.
Combine that complexity with the splintering of the market among print, television, the Internet and plain old buzz, and branding means big business.
"The brand has equity," explained Barbara E. Kahn, dean of the University of Miami School of Business Administration and an expert on, among other things, brand loyalty.
"If you put a valuable brand on it, people are willing to pay more. People may not know the quality of a shirt, but if it says Ralph Lauren, they're willing to pay more," she said.
Consider Coca-Cola, which many marketers deem the world's most successful brand. The four simple letters of "Coke" can be valued at almost $67 billion. Translated, that means you could label a bottle of tap water Coke, and people would be willing to buy it before drinking for free from a faucet.
With so much at stake, branding is no longer left to clever wordsmiths. Marketers now consider it a science.
Again, let's look at Coke. "A lot of us feel that the science of branding started about 1985 after the New Coke situation," Kahn explained.
New Coke's failure proved that even if a product was better -- and tests showed most preferred the taste of New Coke over Classic Coke -- people might refuse it because Coke stood for "the real thing." Coke drinkers couldn't accept that there could be something better.
"That story started what's been going on for 20 years now, a real scientific approach to branding," she said. "In the past, some of the brands were just a name. Like Ford. Now they're thinking strategically."
Which explains the success of Brand Institute, a Miami-based agency founded in 1993 by Jim Dettore and staffed with 150 doctors, pharmacists and other professionals in 14 offices worldwide.
Last year, the company had a hand in 70 percent of the drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration. While it now splits business between pharmaceuticals and other consumer products, its foundations lie in the pharmaceutical niche that appeared in 1996 when drug companies were allowed to market directly to consumers.
"The drug area was extremely growth-minded, so we just carried it on and eventually took over a leadership role," Dettore said.
Adding medical professionals to the creative types that typically fill branding agencies allowed his staff to speak the same language as clients, Dettore said.
A key move came in 2004 when he created a Drug Safety Institute for nomenclature research and hired Jerry Phillips, founding director of the FDA's Division of Medication Error Prevention. For many years, Phillips also ran the FDA's division of labeling, which regulates the very names created by Brand Institute.
To understand the complexity of branding pharmaceuticals, consider their unique place in the market. They are tightly regulated by the government not just in how they are made, but how they are sold.
Scott Piergrossi, who runs the agency's creative division and graduated from Barry University, said there are "a thousand or so" rules that regulate the branding of a drug. Chief among them: A name may not make any promotional claims or exaggerated claims not supported by clinical data.
Celebrex, for example, would probably not be allowed under today's more conservative rules because it suggests too much success. Pfizer produces a smoking cessation drug called Champix in Europe that had to be called Chantix in the United States.
"The FDA said not everyone will quit, and calling it Champix implies champion," Piergrossi said.
Lastly, a drug name cannot sound or look like any other existing drug name. "That similarity could result in confusion, which could ultimately be very dangerous," he explained.
Now add some industry parameters: Drug names typically have no more than nine letters or three syllables. Prefixes and suffixes usually have Latin or Greek roots, so they can be understood more globally. Lunesta can be marketed in South America as well as Europe because the Latin root is used in many Romance languages.
In addition to that, branders want the name to suggest the product's use.
"It should be reflective of essentially the product's point of differentiation, which make it unique," Piergrossi explained. "The concept and name should be resonant with the target audience."
But not always. For instance, when his team was creating the name Latisse, they chose it because it was basically a blank canvas, with no overt associations. The drug was originally created to help chemotherapy patients regrow eyelashes, but makers also wanted it marketed as a lifestyle product to provide lush lashes. So the branders started with the word lash, shortened it to "la" and added "tisse" because it sounded soft and feminine.
"Two syllables help promote [pronunciation] and memorability, which helps physicians write prescriptions," he said.
Marketing directly to consumers has changed the game entirely. It means that branders have to think differently about their strategy. It has also had a significant effect on consumers, said Debbie Triese, professor of advertising at the University of Florida and associate dean of graduate studies.
"When people go to their doctor, they're more empowered, and research suggests the more empowered people are in their own healthcare, the more they'll follow their prescriptions. That's the good side," she said. "The flip side is it is causing doctors to spend a lot more time with patients explaining why something might not be the best drug or why something else might be better."
Research has also shown that people are recognizing symptoms of diseases they might otherwise ignore.
"It is helping to diagnose those people and bringing them to doctors when they wouldn't normally go," she said.
The recession has made branding even more valuable to companies, Piergrossi added.
"If you look at how people are saving money and going to private label brands, whether it's at Wal-Mart or other stores that have the same products but just with no brands, it emphasizes how important branding is because a brand carries brand loyalty," he said. "If you're able to get trust and loyalty, you'll be able to weather hard times."
What has further complicated matters is the way people now get their information. It isn't just reading about it or watching television. Now they hear about it from friends or read something online.
"It used to be ads were on CBS and at eight at night most of the nation was watching," Kahn said. "Now it's social networking, online, cable. You're going to hear about brands because friends told you about it. The world of marketing has changed entirely."