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The lingua franca of pharmaceutical brand names
‘Words have the power to inspire, to
motivate and trigger a call to action.’
In the context of the industry’s changing dynamics, this article will
Words have the power to inspire, to motivate and trigger a call to
set out the role and importance of a name in brand communications,
action. Ever-evolving and ever-expanding, language enables new
establishing the value of a name across the lifecycle of a brand, from
and different ways of articulating and expressing what we want to
pre-launch to post-patent. Recounting a brief history of pharma
say and how we want to say it. As such, the role and importance of a
naming – it will examine how the role of the name has evolved in
name and of language supporting a brand, should not
the context of the changing dynamics of the industry and how the
development of a name has come to be regarded as a strategic component of a brand’s identity and value.
Brands have come to be recognized, slowly but surely, as powerful wealth creators and vehicles of value by the pharmaceutical
Fundamental to the forging of any piece of intellectual property, is
industry. Concomitantly, the development of all aspects of the
the requisite legal – and in the case of pharmaceuticals – regulatory
brand has come to be regarded with greater strategic intent. As
due diligence needed to secure the rights to a brand’s moniker.
pipelines produce more diminished returns and as generics prove
Amidst the overwhelming competition of today’s crowded and
an ever greater force to be reckoned with, one of the fundamental
cluttered therapy areas, we will examine the rigors and risks
challenges for the pharma industry is making that all important
of achieving both legal clearance in one of the most crowded
transition from the current model of profit maximization before
trademark classes and the most exacting of approvals from the
product obsolescence, to one of brand maximization to prevent
obsolescence. This calls for a radical reassessment of the value
Words are the cornerstone of how we communicate. So, in seeking
of brands within the industry and a rethink of how brands are
to maximize the opportunity for a brand, why not develop names
and language around the brand more creatively, precisely
As the first public act of branding, the brand name is afforded a
unique role. Ultimately, it is the one element of the brand that will endure throughout its lifecycle. Whilst the variables of packaging, promotions and positioning are all subject to change, the brand name will remain constant and therefore frequently acts as the focus for the brand.
Today, prescription (Rx) brand names are exchanged almost as common currency – debated by the media, commented on by patients and caregivers over internet chatrooms and message boards and even requested by name in general practitioners’ (GPs) surgeries. However, this has been far from the historical case. Over the past 10-15 years, we have seen a paradigm shift in the extent to which the medical lexicon has become part of a public vocabulary. Botox, Prozac and Viagra are now listed in the Oxford English Dictionary. ‘Health’ and ‘health-related issues’ are one of the most widely searched subjects on the internet.
Rebecca Robins – 2
The value of a good name
The challenge for companies is to build value across every asset
In an article whose subject is the making and meaning of names,
within their portfolio and the foundations of that value start long
and the value of words and language, it seems only logical to begin
before launch, as companies are recognizing the value of establishing
by looking to the semantics of the word brand. ‘Brand’ originates
early-stage equity in the lead-up to launch.
from the Old Norse brandr, meaning ‘to burn’, from the ‘branding’ of
At the same time, that equity needs to be applicable to the long-
livestock – a mark of distinction and differentiation, a sign of quality
term value of a brand. A name that may be developed 3 years ahead
and trust. Over time, that trustmark has been established as a
of launch needs to be applicable for the lifetime potential of that
relationship, one which by securing preference and loyalty, sustains
brand, as companies are looking to leverage equity established in a
The battle for brand-stand out is hard won and defining that crucial
In an industry faced with the harsh realities of a limited patent life,
‘white space’, around which to develop the beginnings of that
we should not forget that a brand name can last forever. Providing
relationship is key. The strongest brands are built on foundations
a trademark is used, it can be renewed ad infinitum – a name is
which are credible, differentiated and sustainable, for the lifetime
therefore a vital and valuable intellectual property asset.
of the brand. Let’s examine those criteria in more detail:
– Laying the foundations of a brand needs to start
An Art and a Science
with a clarity of values – of what a brand stands for, a clarity
For many decades, naming a drug was considerably less complex
of vision – of where a brand is going, and a clarity of mission –
than today. With fewer drugs on the market, trademark classes
of how it is going to get there. In determining that crucial
were less crowded and there was greater opportunity for
window of brand opportunity, it is vital to ensure, from the
‘newness’ in a name. However, to a great extent, what arose was a
outset, a brand proposition that will be relevant and credible
proliferation of names of a certain ‘type’. As the GP and prescribing
audience were the core focus of pharma companies’ naming efforts,
– Therapy areas are more crowded, the pharma
brand monikers became predictable, with many brands in a given
brandscape is more cluttered than ever before, and with degrees
category sounding like everyone else. Names spoke largely to
of differentiation between products diminished, a brand needs
the science - referencing the generic and/or to the specificity of
to work harder and to shout louder in order to be noticed.
Differentiation is the name of the game and a distinctive name will
A copy of MIMs (Monthly Index of Medical Specialties) or the MPR
play its part in enabling stand-out from the competition.
(Monthly Prescribing Reference) will bear witness to certain ‘trends’
– Where might a brand ultimately be going? The
that can be charted in pharma naming. For example, what also
foundations that we establish for a brand from the outset, should
transpired for some time was a predilection for names beginning
be sufficiently flexible, both to accommodate changes in the
with ‘A’ – the premise being that drug listings were in alphabetical
market and for the post-patent life of the brand. The criterion of
order and that being listed at the beginning of the alphabet put a
sustainability extends to ‘future-proofing’ a name for the long-term
brand in a more prominent position. As competition grew, however,
brand opportunity. From Amazon to Virgin, the ‘stretchability’ of
companies looked to new ways to signal something new and
brand names has long been attested to in other industries. Whilst
different in their brand name. The ‘shock of the new’ came in the
pharmaceutical brands are under somewhat different constraints,
form of brand names beginning at the other end of the alphabet
the issue of stretch is not to be underestimated. Consider, for
and, from Zofran to Zeneca, from product brands to corporate
example, the number of biologics which have the potential to
brands, came the rise of under-utilized letter-prefices of ‘Z’ and
target more than one condition. Consider, as companies are
‘X’. Visually distinctive and phonetically dynamic, Z and X had the
looking to build longer-lasting brands, the need for the equity of
double-edged benefit of sounding ‘new’, ‘different’ and cutting-edge,
an established Rx brand name to be leveraged within the over-the-
as well as being, at the time, two of the most under-exploited letters
In the context of the current dynamics of the market, what we
Branding is ultimately about creating a relationship with the
say about our brands and how we say it have taken on more
customer. In terms of the pharmaceutical industry, the ‘customer’
significance than ever. In the ‘blockbuster boom’, best-seller drugs
had been defined predominantly in terms of the prescriber.
were milked as cash-cows until the patent ran out and the focus
However, today’s patients/end-users are more enfranchised and
of efforts turned to the next in the pipeline. However, times have
empowered than ever before, which has created a paradigm shift
changed – and radically so – as competition is greater than ever, the
in how healthcare companies approach the concept of brand
blockbuster golden bullets are far more elusive and each and every
development. The need to engage with the end-user has caused
mature drug faces the all too present reality of the rise of generics.
companies to rise to the challenge of speaking the patient’s language as much as the prescriber’s language.
1. Wall Street Journal, September 20002. See Appendix for a current list of Z-prefixed brand names
Rebecca Robins – 2
‘As clutter increases across therapy areas,
brand stand-out will need to be defined,
incessantly, in new and different ways.’
Enbrel exemplifies the future-proof value of a name established on a broad-based quality of life concept of ‘enabling relief’. Etanercept
Brand names beginning with Z, MIMS
was indicated for the treatment of RA (Rheumatoid Arthritis) but
had the potential to be indicated for various treatments beyond RA.
Critically, therefore, the name needed to be relevant at the point
of initial approval in RA, as well as for its approval for a subsequent
The emergence of a more enfranchised end-user, however, does
not equate to a single new approach to naming pharmaceuticals.
The fact remains that the role and opportunity for a brand will vary
according to the prescribing context – for example, a hospital-
prescribed drug, as required in an emergency setting will have no
end-user interface. Ultimately, a name should help to signal and
strengthen a brand’s point of difference in the marketplace. In
today’s heavily branded environment, prescribers and consumers
alike, are bombarded with a barrage of brand messages and
more creative approaches are called for. Let’s take a look at some
strategies that can be employed to achieve that crucial determinant
Speaking to the science in the name can be a strong strategic
move, provided that it results in a unique, distinctive and ownable
proposition for the brand. The anti-hypertensive brands Hyzaar and Cozaar both encode AA – angiotension antagonist -within the
As a society, we have become more interested in our health and are
brand name. This approach afforded a linking strategy/franchise
keen to take more of a role in the management of our health, all
approach for Merck’s anti-hypertensive portfolio and, in the follow-
of which continues to be fuelled by the immediate access to open
through of the ‘AA’ in the graphics of the wordmark, cemented it
sources of information, as afforded by the internet and, in the US at
as a meaningful mnemonic for the prescribing audience.
least, by direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising.
Another example of this approach is Namenda, an Alzheimer’s
With the advent of DTC, has emerged a more consumer-oriented
treatment. Leveraging terminology specific to a new class can
lingua franca. Brands need to have wider appeal and to speak to both prescriber and patient. The patient/end-user is less concerned
Figure 0.1: The AA encoding in the angiotension
antagonist brands Hyzaar and Cozaar
with how a drug works and more concerned with what that drug can do for them – surely, therefore, it would follow that a drug’s name should function more than as a mere mnemonic for the patient’s disease or condition. ‘Benefit-led’ names are more directly communicative across and relevant to a wider set of target audiences. Within high-exposure, DTC environments, names which speak less to functionality and more to end-benefits can help to cut through the clutter of a crowded therapy area.
Classic examples of benefit-driven names abound, some of the most notable including Celebrex, Viagra, Allegra, Claritin, Enbrel and Zestril, all of which suggest the ability to move forward and get on with one’s life. Celebrex speaks to a quality of life message, evoking the end benefits for the end-user, whilst at the
Source: InterbrandHealth. Business Insights
same time, celebrating the science of celecoxib. The name thus balances sufficient gravitas for the prescribing audience, whilst communicating more emotive benefits to the end-user.
Rebecca Robins – 3
play a key part in taking ownership of ‘white space’ – in the case of
Figure 0.2: Zavesca – combining brand name, supporting
Namenda, an NMDA receptor agonist, encoding NMDA (N-methyl-
nomenclature, messaging and brand graphics
D-aspartate) within the name. Fuzeon, as a leading fusion inhibition therapy in HIV, also adopts a classic blocking strategy, by cornering the concept of Fusion inhibition in the prefix.
The position of being first in a new class is a privileged one, and thus one to be signaled in clear and distinctive terms. This extends beyond the development of a brand name, to leveraging supportive language, such as class nomenclature.
A new class will serve as a positioning tool to separate out the compound from other treatments in the same therapeutic category. In so doing, a company gives itself the opportunity of fighting the marketing battle on new terms, which affords the advantage of a platform for differentiation and a means by which to take ownership of ‘newness’ and of the story behind the science. Pharmaceutical companies that are proactively creating this nomenclature give themselves this edge, instead of having a classification handed to them.
Source: InterbrandHealth. Business Insights
With the advent of more targeted therapies, have emerged a number of names which speak to the specificity of those therapies. Targeted therapeutics is the watchword of the oncology market and we have
Zavesca illustrates this very well both through the wordmark and the
seen that translated in brand names such as: Erbitux, referencing
supporting graphic comprised of the product itself, which speaks to
ERB; Herceptin, encoding HER 2 and, in more general terms, with
the unique proposition of the first and only oral therapy, indicated for
the ‘tar’geted approach of Tarceva.
Companies have also looked to their corporate heritage. Epogen and
With the ‘ascent of the brand’, the way in which healthcare
Neupogen, two of the biggest brand names in biotech were built off
companies approach the development of a brand name has become
more strategic and, indeed, open to the possibilities of language. ‘Classic’ vowel/consonant constructions have ceded to more
In examining these different approaches to pharma naming, we have
innovative approaches, such as the conjunction of consonants, as
touched on a broad spectrum of names – names which are indicative
exemplified in brands such as Vfend, an antifungal and Qvar, an
of the generic, names which are associative of the drug’s indication,
or unique mode of action, names which suggest certain benefits. In charting these so-called ‘categories’ of name, perhaps the most
As clutter increases across therapy areas, brand stand-out will need
prevalent in the current pharmaceutical arena is the ‘abstract’ name.
to be defined, incessantly, in new and different ways.
The term ‘abstract’ harks to names which do not encode any overt, inherent meaning. For example, within the anti-emetics category,
A global currency: Namer beware!
classic articulations of an ‘abstract name’ include Zofran and Kytril.
In a market which is increasingly global and where companies are
Neither is linked to the generic, speaks to the category, or references
seeking to concentrate investment towards a single brand across all
a specific benefit. These six-letter success stories are built on the
markets, a concomitant requirement for a single global trademark is
simple dynamics of sound and tonality. They exemplify the fact that
called for. However, the legal, cultural and regulatory challenges that
names communicate as much via construct as content.
are to be overcome to achieve that single trademark, are not to be underestimated.
Other tactical applications of the ‘abstract approach’, include palindromic constructs, as exemplified in such brands as XANAX,
The linguistic and cultural acceptability of a name is paramount. Checks need to be carried out in all territories in which a new drug
Buy-in to more abstract names can be a more difficult process.
will be marketed to ensure that the name(s) under consideration are
However, consider the plethora of names outside the industry,
free from negative connotations and cultural associations.
which, in some cases, have clear derivations and stories behind them, yet which are unknown by the majority of their target
audience. Does the majority of Nike’s core target audience know
As desirable as a global brand name may be, the reality is that the
that the name is derived from the Greek goddess of victory? Probably
web knows no borders. Aside from the rigors of legal and regulatory
not. Does it matter? No! Simple, concise and distinctive, the name
clearance, domain name availability is a law unto itself. The basic
has come to be synonymous with and evocative of the concept of
tenets are to register all permutations of a name – .com, .net, .biz,
.info – along with as many local country variants as available, and to protect your name with a vengeance.
Again, let’s not lose sight of the fact that a name is not an island. The brand name is the public face of the brand, but it is one element of an integrated proposition. Therefore, it should always be considered within the context of the overall strategy for the brand and should be leveraged as part of a cohesive whole, comprising name, supporting nomenclature, messaging and brand graphics.
Rebecca Robins – 4
‘Determine the white space, define your
point of difference and speak to it!’
• not look or sound like any other proprietary drug name or non-
A name for a new drug is subject to a level of scrutiny unknown in any
proprietary drug name relating to a different active ingredient;
other industry. Any brand name for a pharmaceutical or healthcare
• have a minimum of 3 distinguishing letters;
product has to be cleared and registered in Class 5, notoriously one
• not convey misleading therapeutic or pharmaceutical connotations
• Every month an average of 1,000 names are filed in Class 5
• avoid qualification by letters or a single detached letter and
• No fewer than 663,000 registered trademarks exist in Class 5
• not incorporate a WHO or USAN adopted and published
Once a shortlist of names has navigated successfully the legal
Having surmounted a legal labyrinth, more tortuous than any other,
labyrinth, applications to file should be made to afford the requisite
and a regulatory process fraught with difficulties, a name faces one
last hurdle. It is often the case that a name which fits the brand
strategy, survives the rigors of legal searching and rates highly on
If the legal statistics are not sufficiently daunting, the realities of
regulatory risk assessment, may not be the brand team’s number
the regulatory approval process are such that approximately 35%
of names submitted for approval are met with rejection by the FDA
The basic tenets for decision-making on a name are to set clear
and consistent objectives and criteria for the selection and to be
Why is the rate of rejection so high and what can be done? The
unwavering in benchmarking potential names by those criteria.
simple reason is that a name can be a matter of life and death.
Names will not live in the environs in which they were created and
Seemingly innocuous interchanges of names have resulted in
in which they will be managed – the criteria for final selection should
temporary harm; permanent harm; patient hospitalization and,
never be one of ‘like/dislike’, but of a name that fulfils the following
in some cases, ultimately, in death.
Rejection is largely down to the potential of confusion with other
brand names and thus, the resulting risk of dispensing errors and
misprescription. Examples of misprescriptions are not as few and
far between as one might imagine, but some of the most frequently
• Future-proofed for the life of the brand
cited by the USP (United States Pharmacopoeia) include:
• Linguistically acceptable and appropriate
• Primaxin IV (antibiotic injection) and Primacor (hypertension
• Registrable and protectable as a trademark and URL
• Approvable by the requisite regulatory authorities
• Cartia XT (hypertension) and Procardia XL (hypertension)• Lamictal (epilepsy) and Lamisil (fungal infection)4
Let’s remember what a brand name is here to do. Ultimately, a brand is about adding value. The development – and selection –
As a result, pharmaceutical companies are increasingly looking to
of a name should be considered in the same terms.
more rigorous approaches to testing and validating brand names with prescribing and dispensing target audiences prior to submitting a name for regulatory approval.
The EMEA (European Agency for the Evaluation of Medicinal Products) sets out a degree of guidance as to the development of pharmaceutical trademarks. These state that a name should:
4. Source: U.S. Pharmacopeia. A full list can
Rebecca Robins – 5
Ultimately, there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ approaches. A name
In the words of William Hazlitt: “Words are the only things that
which looks and sounds like other brands in a category may feel
‘comfortable’, because it appears to ‘fit’ the current market context. Brand distinction, however, is built on recognition, not repetition.
In an industry where patent life is limited and the domain of market
The simple reality is that if you look and sound like everyone else,
exclusivity is being toppled harder and faster by the onslaught of
generics, a brand name needs to work that much harder throughout its on-patent life, while having the potential to live long beyond it.
It comes down to the question of what business the healthcare
As companies are increasingly looking to lengthen the productive
industry considers itself to be in. As famously stated, the railroad
and profitable life of their brands, established equity in a brand
industry is not in the business of trains, but of transportation.
name can provide a powerful platform for future wealth creation.
Similarly, is the healthcare industry in the business of illness or
It’s about a name that will resonate with prescribers and consumers
wellness? If we look at the vision and mission statements of the top
alike, and, ultimately, that will be relevant for the lifetime earnings
20 pharma companies, they all speak to “improving the quality of
human life”. Ultimately, if healthcare companies are in the business of life, surely they should be looking to reflect that in the way in
The reality is that healthcare companies and the industry as a whole
which they communicate, not least, in the one enduring element of
are going to need to engage in a more direct and open means of
communicating with their respective audiences. We have seen moves towards this already, for example, with the publication of
Determine the white space, define your point of difference and
clinical trial data. There is a pull-push dynamic towards a greater
transparency in the industry and the use of language, in how we speak to, and of, our brands, will have a key role to play.
So, having taken a 360º view of the pharma namescape, what can we extrapolate as the recipe for success? With only 26 letters in the alphabet, 1000+ names registered at the USPTO each month and 35% of names submitted to the FDA and EMEA for approval being rejected, the creative challenge is sharp-edged, but one to be approached as a vital, valuable and long-term opportunity.
As stated at the outset, a brand needs to be built on foundations which are credible, distinctive and sustainable, from pre-launch communications to post-patent platform for brand extensions. Those foundations start with a name that looks to optimize the opportunity for the brand.
Rebecca Robins – 6
Rebecca Robins is Global Marketing
Director of InterbrandHealth. She is based
The role of branding in the pharmaceutical
industry, a practical examination of the
in the New York office. She is responsible
changing dynamics in the industry and of the
for global marketing, client services and
increasing importance of strong branding.
She is a regular conference speaker, keen
diverse range of clients across a number
pharmaceutical and marketing publications.
experience within the pharmaceutical and biotech industries, working with companies
Having graduated from Cambridge University
such as AstraZeneca, GSK, Merck, Novartis,
German and an M Phil in European Literature,
Rebecca has a passion for languages.
understanding of branding at product, service and corporate levels, having worked
with such clients as British Airways, Lego
First published in Pharmaceutical Branding Strategies: Thought leader perspectives on Brand Building, Global Business Insights
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