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The Creative Science of Coining Drug Names

Cialis, Eliquis, Cymbalta. Though these names may sound like they were created by over-caffeinated Scrabble™ players, they are in fact the result of intensive creative efforts joined with rigorous FDA testing.

With more than 30,000 proprietary drug brands in the US, FDA guidelines directing that each name be highly differentiated, truly unique, and adhere to a cornucopia of restrictions, and manufacturers desiring that the name suggests some marketing message, generating a brand name is no easy task.

So when a small pharma company in the exurbs of San Diego needed a brand name for an asthma related drug, they did what many companies with new products do: they held a brainstorming session. And it went like this:

The project manager recruited ten folks from different departments with the promise of pizza and got six of them to show up. Over the next two months, in between hundreds of emails, they met five times, each with diminishing attendance and enthusiasm as their ideas were rejected for reasons running from IP concerns to personal preference – the boss felt the recommended brand name sounded like the name of his high school football coach whom he loathed.

At that point, feeling more than a little frustrated, the manager engaged the services of a professional name development consultancy, and what follows is a peek into the world of drug naming.

Kicking off a naming project requires the crafting a strategic roadmap that both client and creative teams can agree on. This set of guidelines describes the target audience, the competitive landscape, the single-minded benefit, and other communication requirements. Usually referred to as a creative brief, it serves two functions. One, to inform and inspire the copywriters, linguists, poets, and verbal identity specialists who are charged with creating a new name and two, to serve as a guide in evaluating the names that are generated.

Drug naming presents unique communication challenges and necessitates a deeper dive than might otherwise be required for simpler creative endeavors. One way to peel the onion is probing for the unusual. Questions such as “if your drug was a superhero who would it be?” or “if you met your drug at a party, what might they talk about?” were initially met with curious stares but were soon followed by enthusiastic responses.

And it was through this probing that the ‘aha’ moment reveled itself. While the mechanism of the drug is complex, in marketing terms its core benefit is quite simple; easier breathing. Creatively, this is a prosaic premise, but the insight uncovered from the odd questions sparked a multitude of creative directions radiating from the simple yet rich idea of “air.”

Armed with this insight the fun began.

In most creative endeavors the default technique is brainstorming. However, studies and experience suggest that skilled individuals equipped with the right tools produce more and better ideas than a group cloistered in a conference room.

Furthermore, it is a common misconception that creative people stare at the ceiling or the stars and muse until an idea whacks them on the side of the head. Ideas, like fire, need fuel to ignite. Naming fuel includes thesauri and Google of course, but also cowboy dictionaries, surfer dictionaries, the encyclopedia of gems and minerals, and the big book of sports metaphors to name a few.

Assembled over neither pizza or coffee the creative team lead orchestrated the assignments.

First, a copywriter envisioned names emanating from aircraft and immediately left the room to seek inspiration from aeronautical tomes including a dictionary of flight, “Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft,” a book of aviator’s slang and the 1938 edition of “The Glossary of Meteorological Terms,” among others.

A linguist offered up the powerful idea of sound symbolism. Sound symbolism is a concept holding that certain sounds symbolize certain meanings. For example, the letter cluster “gl” is associated with many words suggesting light or sight such as glitter, glower, glow or glint. Using this “gl” letter cluster to name a camera or a light bulb would be an effective use of sound symbolism.

Leveraging this powerful tool, he was tasked to create name candidates following two different paths. The first path explored the letter “v.” Because the “v” sound is created through an active vibration of the vocal tract, many linguists posit that this activity represents life or health as evidenced by its many occurrences in words roughly synonymous with the concept of life as in victory, via, vivo, vibrant, vivid, alive, live, etc. The second path involved sounds made through bursts or puffs of air through the lips as in the letters “b” and “p.” Sound symbolic words formed with pushes of air include puff, poof, balloon, burst, blow, breath, etc.

The third approach employed a good, old-fashioned computer. Generally, a machine is not as creative as a tortured soul with a reference book but as a complement to the human endeavors, a simple computer program was devised to concatenate iterations of letters, sounds and root words.

Of course, not all parts of a message are rational so for an emotional perspective, a young poet was engaged. To make things even more interesting, a particularly effective technique – Blind Direction – was employed. This ideation technique hides information directly relevant to the product while exposing ideas only tangentially related. In this case, without knowing anything about the project, she was instructed to develop names that evoked the atmospheric imagery of clouds, skies and gentle winds.

After a week and, importantly, a weekend because sometimes the best ideas strike during the downtimes between intensive efforts of creative focus, the contributors gathered to compare notes. The white-board filled with purple marker and the picture-window with sticky notes as everyone presented their ideas. With more than 750 names and nothing off the table the group began creating even more ideas riffing off the work displayed in the room. Ultimately, more than one thousand names were generated.

And then the fun ended.

Evaluating any creative output, fine wine, fine art or fine names, involves a degree of subjectivity and while honoring that it’s important to employ a consistent evaluative methodology that minimizes it. Uniquely, drug names face additional hurdles because they must navigate a gauntlet of FDA guidelines. And these guidelines, for the most part, limit the kind of communication messages that are part of any marketer’s DNA.

With a new drug name, you only get one chance to make a first impression so it is imperative that the name work as hard as possible. And that’s the first evaluative hurdle. While there is a rigorous evaluative process that takes a week or more to unfold, in a nutshell, names that communicate messages hold extraordinary potential. The messages may be subtle or direct, suggest benefits or features, trigger a positive image, etc. – there is no hard and fast rule – but ideally a name should communicate some aspect of the marketing message. For this project, this means a name that recalls, in some way, the context of the condition, i.e. respiration. And that’s the first pass at winnowing the contenders.

Screening out the names that didn’t meet this strategic benchmark resulted in a more manageable number that were then filtered through the second screen, Pre-FDA.  Pre-FDA mimics, in an abbreviated fashion, the analysis used by the FDA.

The FDA has an alphabet soup of agencies, divisions and offices whose singular mission is to eliminate errors due to confusion between drug names. And they are tough, rejecting more than a third of submissions.

With a process that can take up to six months, multiple departments subject the submitted name to an exhaustive battery of tests that run the gamut from the obvious; does this name sound like another name, to the esoteric; how does this name appear when written by a random sample of physicians on lined notepaper using different colors of ink.

Names are rejected for a multitude of reasons too numerous to detail here, but generally names that are too close to each other in spelling, scripted appearance and pronunciation are deemed to be potentially confusing. Other reasons for rejection include suggestions of dosing, effectiveness, usage or superiority.

And it is these very stringent requirements that drive the seemingly random assemblage of letters that make up a proprietary drug name.

The Pre-FDA screen team put just under a hundred names through their paces and when the creative teams gathered again it was with 32 candidates to move to the next phase, the client presentation. The name is still a work in progress and confidentiality agreements prevent any further sneak peeks but the end is close.

In short, drug manufacturers operate in an environment involving human health, a crowded and noisy competitive landscape, restricted communication goals, and exacting rules imposed by a powerful and influential government agency. Combine these strictures with a finite number of letters with which to work, and they face a considerable challenge when it comes time to name their drug.

So, the next time you’re watching the evening news and see the ads for Byvalson, Ameluz, or Taltz, they may still sound silly, but at least you now know why.

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