Inside the frantic and secretive sprint to name the Covid-19 vaccines
The United States has a Covid-19 vaccine, the result of science carried out at breakneck speed. Now, whether the country knows it or not, it’s awaiting the results of another whirlwind effort: one to come up with brand names for products that will literally change the world.
Naming a vaccine is almost always a matter of threading semantic needles, branding experts said, where the goal is to evoke positive vibes without irking the world’s ever more conservative regulatory bodies. And it takes time.
The process of christening a new medicine typically involves about two years of semiotic labor. But in 2020, just as drug companies collapsed their standard development timelines to fight a global pandemic, the naming process has been condensed into a six-month sprint, said Scott Piergrossi, president of operations and communications at the Miami-based Brand Institute, which has worked on Covid-19 vaccine naming projects. (Citing the confidentiality of client agreements, Piergrossi wouldn’t say which ones.)
“We’ve never experienced anything like this in our time in business,” said Piergrossi. “It’s been a privilege to be in some way a part of this effort.”
Piergrossi and his colleagues are eager for the world to see the fruits of their marketing Manhattan Project. But neither Pfizer nor Moderna is likely to reveal the names of their vaccines until they receive full Food and Drug Administration approval — as opposed to emergency use authorizations. Those are expected to come some time next year.
That doesn’t mean those close to the process aren’t trying to find out sooner.
“Everyone I know is trying to get it out of me,” Piergrossi said. “I haven’t even told my wife what the names are.”
Marketing experts involved in the naming of previous vaccines say a good name might suggest cutting-edge science, but it had best not imply the product is so new as to be risky. It should be assuring, but not overly promotional; approachable, but distinct from any other approved product. It’s a narrow target to hit.
“There is a great deal of creativity involved in trying to generate a name that not only meets the FDA requirements but also has an emotional or even rational appeal to the end user,” said Mike Pile, president and creative director of Uppercase Branding, a firm whose client base includes pharmaceutical companies. “You try to make them as friendly as possible. You want to do everything you can to avoid putting a question mark between you and your consumer.”
At Uppercase, the process of naming a medicine begins with identifying a target audience, Pile said, which shapes the creative process. Treatments for widespread diseases like arthritis are likely to be advertised on TV and radio, placing added importance on warmth and ease of pronunciation. Novel drugs for cancer are almost exclusively marketed to the oncologists who prescribe them, which incentivizes a more scientific inspiration.
Vaccines, among the few medical products pitched to people who are entirely healthy, have perhaps the widest commercial aperture, Pile said, presenting an added challenge when it comes to branding
That means naming a vaccine involves more downside risk than upside potential, said Heidi Tworek, a University of British Columbia history professor who studies health communication. An excellent brand name might have at best a marginal effect on convincing someone to get vaccinated, but a deeply off-putting one could nudge a skeptic away from signing up, she said.
“How are you going to find a name that tells you what it’s for, is easy to pronounce, simple when you read it, and helps people who are maybe vaccine hesitant as well?” Tworek said. The drug industry’s tendency toward nominative futurism, with its X’s, Y’s, and Z’s, could be problematic at a time of rampant medical distrust. “You want to try and forestall the Bill Gates microchip conspiracy theory, and if you choose a name that sounds more banal and quotidian, you might avoid that,” she said.
Neither Pfizer nor Moderna would disclose the final names of their Covid-19 vaccines, but the companies’ trademark filings offer a glimpse at the likely finalists.
Pfizer and BioNTech seem to be split between sonorous abstractions and names that get at the underlying technology of their vaccine, which uses messenger RNA to spur immunity to Covid-19. That helps explain “RnaxCovi” and “KoviMerna,” two trademarks that attempt to fuse the technology behind the vaccines and the indication into a branded portmanteau. Then there’s “Comirnaty” and “Covuity,” which fall more on the conceptual end of the naming spectrum.
Moderna’s vaccine also uses mRNA to expose the immune system to a protein called spike, which is present on the surface of the virus that causes Covid-19. Its trademark filings lean more toward the practical, including “CovidVax,” “SpikeVax,” and, to mix things up a bit, “SpykeVax.” (“WuhanVax,” which Moderna trademarked in January, seems unlikely to become the final choice.)
However, even after all of the brainstorms, trademark screenings, and foreign language cross-checks, there remains the potential that none of this matters.
For most of the year, people around the world have followed the development of vaccines against Covid-19 and differentiated them by their inventor companies. If millions know something as “the Pfizer vaccine,” can the collective might of all the world’s branding firms possibly convince them to call it “RnaxCovi”?
There’s recent evidence to suggest that first impressions last the longest. In the early days of the pandemic, Gilead Sciences’ antiviral treatment remdesivir dominated headlines as it appeared to be the most promising medicine against Covid-19. In the intervening months, the drug has acquired a brand name — Veklury, pronounced like McFlurry — but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who knows it as anything other than remdesivir. Regeneron Pharmaceuticals’ antibody treatment for Covid-19, endorsed by President Trump with the immortal slogan “They gave me Regeneron,” is likely to face a similar situation when it eventually makes the leap into branded territory.
To Peter Hotez, a virologist and vaccine expert at the Baylor College of Medicine, the brand names of Covid-19 vaccines are likely to have little effect on public perception. People almost never request vaccines by their trade names, he said, asking instead for “the flu vaccine” or “the HPV vaccine.”
“How much those names permeate the lexicon and become household names will depend on how they do,” Hotez said of the Covid-19 vaccines. “If they have untoward effects or have to be withdrawn, then that name will be featured prominently. If they’re successful, they’ll just be referred to as the company.”
That’s a challenge the naming industry is glad to accept.
“There is no reason that you can’t thread the needle and come up with a name that is both consumer-friendly and pushes the boundaries of science and technology,” Pile said. “That’s the quest for the holy grail, which is why there are branding companies like mine.”