The Power of Drug Names

Recognize characters in the following short scene?

Paxil faced Crestor saying, “Xanax of Lipitor seeks the Neurontin.” Hearing this, Zoloft rose from Levitra, dropped his Lyrica and crossed the Cialis to heave an Effexor into Zocor. The Celebrex cheered, “All hail Voltaren”.

Names like these suggest superheroes and other larger than life figures. But you may have already guessed that these names belong to popular pills and medications.

Creating drug names that imply strength, power, speed and youth has become a big challenge and a big business this decade. How big, we’ll see in this series.

What happens when pharmaceutical companies coin a new medicine’s moniker? How do they create the names of their bestsellers? What obstacles stand in the way of a new name?

Actual naming begins two to three years before the pharmaceutical comes to market. At this early stage drug marketers naturally seek names on their products powerful and unique enough to attract both doctors and patients, names that say, “improved quality of life”. To secure these their name-makers must get past governmental checkpoints. Many times this is possible only by subtlety and indirection.

All of the 9,000 generic and 33,000 trademarked US medications, from Aciphex to Zyrtec-D, run the same gauntlet on their way to launch.

Every drug that comes to market will carry three names. First comes the chemical name, a scientific designation based on the compound. Next appears a generic name that’s used throughout the life of the drug. And lastly comes the trade name that’s marketed by the drug manufacturer.

These last are the ones we know the best, because their makers promote them heavily during 17 years of exclusive rights. The first hurdle for the next Viagra or Lipitor is securing that generic name. For with it comes permission to test on animals. The group that assigns generic drug names, the U.S. Adopted Names Council, insists that each name have only one pronunciation and no more than four syllables. To try for approval a drug maker can submit up to three candidate names at a time. The name can neither suggest a cure nor a specific part of the body. And it must distinguish itself from other generic or trade drugs on the market.

Does any name stand a chance? Not always. Sometimes the Names Council will impose a spelling moratorium, as it did on the letters X and Z as first letters because they sound so much alike.

After generic approval stands the obstacle of getting a trade name. This is the money-maker, and drug marketers will try to invent one that’s easy to remember. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as well as the Patent and Trademark Office have final say in what goes on the market. Essentially the FDA prohibits names that promise a drug will be effective. Here’s where contracted branding consultants earn their living, trying to make just the right name to fit their pharmaceutical clients’ marketing ambitions into the government restrictions.

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This name generation is no trivial task, as every year the FDA rejects a third of hundreds proposed. The agency sets up screenings of names in which health-care professionals look for problems that might arise by examining written and verbal orders. Even variations in regional pronunciations come under scrutiny.

These strictures often lead to a bending of the original name choice. The now famous hair-regrowth drug would initially have been christened Regain. But as this reportedly too much resembled a guarantee, its ultimate choice became Rogain.

Millions of dollars, hundreds of possibilities, and the world’s most bizarre spellings. It’s from these elements that name-makers generate powerhouse trademarks for the biggest-selling drugs.

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