Drug Makers Make Name Games Big Business

By Tom Murphy | January 2008
Associated Press

Prozac. Viagra. Lipitor.

The names of these popular medicines don't have defined meanings. But millions are spent creating just the right sound and image.

Research shows letters with a hard edge like P, T or K convey effectiveness. X seems scientific. L, R or S provide a calming or relaxing feel. Z means speed.

Drug companies often delve into a weird science that ties symbolism to letters or prefixes when they hunt for the next hot brand name.

The naming process isn't easy, or getting any easier. Regulatory guidelines are becoming more restrictive, and the brand market is more crowded. More than 14,000 new drug names were filed last year with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, a 23 percent increase from 2003, according to research firm Thomson CompuMark. The Food and Drug Administration now reviews between 300 and 400 names each year.

The payoffs, however, can be huge. Global pharmaceutical sales totaled $643 billion in 2006, reports IMS Health. Lipitor, the world's best-selling drug, rang up more than $3 billion in sales during the third quarter last year.

But before a new drug earns its first dollar, companies must find a brand that works in many languages, passes U.S. trademark and FDA reviews, and proves unique in the European Union's 27 countries.

It can cost $250,000 to $500,000 to create and test the name, then a couple of million dollars more to shepherd it through trademark searches and regulatory reviews. The entire process can last up to three years.

The hunt for the right brand generally starts with the company or a contractor drawing up a list of hundreds of possibilities.

They try to keep the name within two or three syllables or under nine letters so people can pronounce and remember it, said Scott Piergrossi, creative director for the Miami-based consulting firm Brand Institute, which has tested thousands of brands for drug makers.

''It can't be too intimidating in the look, the feel, the tone and the meaning itself to patients,'' said Brand Institute CEO James Dettore.

The name also must say something. That's where symbolism can help.

Lilly's brand for the erectile dysfunction drug Cialis is derived from ciel, the French word for sky.

Drug makers prefer a name that says something about the drug, like Allegra, which alludes to the allergy relief it provides. They also like brand names that use real words to convey meaning.

Dettore and Piergrossi point to the brand Invega for a Johnson & Johnson anti-psychotic. The word Vega, the brightest star in the constellation Lyra, is embedded in it. Any imagery related to the stars or space carries a positive connotation.

All this deep thinking can amount to nothing if it doesn't pass regulatory and trademark muster.

That original list of hundreds of possible names gets whittled down to between 30 and 50 preferences. A screening process that looks for identical or near identical names then eliminates more, down to about 10.

Then serious screening starts. Companies scour trademark databases for each country in which they plan to sell the drug.

Eventually, companies send their final selections to the FDA and European regulators, where the brands undergo more scrutiny.

One big taboo: The name cannot make a claim about a drug. The hair-loss treatment Rogaine, for instance, was originally called Regain until the FDA rejected it.

The FDA also tests for safety. A name shouldn't resemble another brand too closely. That can cause confusion with messy handwriting on a prescription.

The FDA rejects 35 percent to 40 percent of the brands it reviews. In Europe, the rejection rate approaches 50 percent, Lee said.

But the result can be worthwhile. Prozac became Lilly's top-selling drug. The brand name became so common it wound up in Webster's New World College Dictionary.

Back to top