Why Are Drugs Getting Such Weird Brand Names?

5/9/11Follow @xconomy

Oddball product names are one of the occupational hazards of biotech writing. Drugs in particular can be hard to spell, and often hard to pronounce. While I can practically type telaprevir, telaprevir, telaprevir in my sleep at this point, I can almost feel the reader reaction when that scientific name flows from my keyboard.

ZZZ….

Alas, there’s no Steve Jobs-style marketing whiz in this business, handing down tablets from the heavens, and bestowing upon them a magical name like “iPad.” But lately, the business of giving brand names to prescription drugs seems to have gone from boring to weird.

Check a few of the newly-coined drug names—Incivek, Adcetris, Yervoy, Viibryd, Zytiga, Xgeva. Somewhere, the folks who sell Coca-Cola must be giggling at their friends who went into pharmaceuticals. How are you supposed to create an identity for a product, when people can’t even spell or pronounce it, much less have any sense of what it means?

There’s a reason so many drug names look so weird. A good drug name is supposed to check lots of boxes. It should be easy for doctors to spell accurately when they scribble it down on a prescription pad. It should be memorable. It should be used in every country around the world without triggering some cultural confusion or sensitivity. It ought to be consistent with the science or clinical application that distinguished the product through years of development, yet the brand name shouldn’t be so geeky that it’s obtuse for patients. Ideally, you’d want it to trigger some relevant connection to your product.

It’s all easier said than done, says Vince Budd, the senior vice president at Addison Whitney, a brand consulting firm in Charlotte, NC. Besides the creative challenge of doing all that, there are legal and regulatory barriers for pharma companies. Lawyers for the drug companies watch carefully to make sure no one is infringing on any of their thousands of brand trademarks, to make sure nobody can ride the coattails of a consumer hit like Pfizer’s sildenafil (Viagra). Once a name can be shown to be unique from a trademark perspective, it’s still got a long way to go. Companies can easily spend more than a year, sometimes two years, getting through the creative process, the trademark process, and then FDA approval process.

The FDA is getting particularly tough, rejecting about four out of every 10 name proposals, because it wants to avoid medication mix-ups that can lead to dangerous—sometimes deadly—adverse reactions, Budd says. The poster child for brand confusion is Celebrex (a pain medication) getting mixed up with Celexa (an anti-depressant).

“If you want to name a potato chip, all you have to know is whether you can own the trademark,” Budd says. The effort to become uber-differentiated from everything else in pharmaceuticals, Budd says, leads to some of those new names you see. “You’re getting names that are crazier and crazier,” he says.

There are really two different of drugs to think about for naming purposes. There are drugs that are trying to reach mainstream consumers, and drugs that really only need to connect with physicians. Budd, whose firm helped name a new drug for depression, Viibryd, was hoping to convey … Next Page »

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  • David Goldfarb

    Amen, brother. As a pharma marketer, it seems to me the objective is to occupy a space in the mind of the prescriber on the way to “top of mind in the category.” Being uniquely odd just isn’t aiming high enough. One suspects that professional namers are simply keyboarding parameters into a program, letting it run and editing out the candidates with no vowels at all. Does this work? Sure. But naming could be done so much better.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/ltimmerman/ Luke Timmerman

    Drum roll please….the votes are in on the best and worst drug names. Here are the top 10 worst names, as selected by you the readers by 6 pm Eastern/3 pm Pacific time.

    Worst:
    Xgeva….27
    Yervoy…20
    Edarbi…16
    Viibryd..10
    Incivek…8
    Zytiga….5
    Duexis….5
    Daliresp..5
    Actemra…4
    Victrelis.4
    Jevtana…3
    Adcetris..2
    Provenge..2
    Horizant..2
    Gralise….2
    Sylatron..2

    I’ll add another comment for the names you voted in as the best.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/ltimmerman/ Luke Timmerman

    Here are the votes for the best drug names:

    Best:
    Provenge…39
    Benlysta…27
    Prolia…..21
    Incivek….10
    Horizant….9
    Victrelis…8
    Viibryd…..7
    Adcetris….5
    Yervoy……4
    Actemra…..4

    The polls are now closed. SurveyMonkey wants me to pay for more results, and since this was just for fun, I’m not going to. I’m not sure what to conclude here, other than we have a lot of Dendreon fans stuffing the ballot box, like many probably will for Ichiro at this year’s All-Star game. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • Ellen M Martin

    Viibryd sounds like a new humanoid species in a science fiction universe…

  • http://www,natrapharm.com Chito Aquino

    i also voted for Provenge as the one i like most because its an action name..the revenge of of the prostate to ward off cancer cells.easier for the doctors to recall and “feel good” for patients.I dont like Galise because in the Philippines Galis is a stubborn wound.It should avoid this connotation if it wants to gain a good international brand image.Overall thank you for the mental exercise.

    • waaa

      In fact, it sounds like proactive revenge. Vengeance carried out even before the need for re-venge.

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  • LJ

    It is Gralise, not Galise. And it is now Depomed’s, not Abbott’s.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/ltimmerman/ Luke Timmerman

    LJ—good catch, thanks. After writing this, I also realize I forgot a few drugs that would have been fun to include in the mix. I’m thinking of Arena Pharmaceuticals’ lorcaserin (Lorqess) for obesity, Orexigen Therapeutics’ combination of naltrexone and bupropion (Contrave) for obesity, Amylin Pharmaceuticals exenatide once-weekly (Bydureon) for diabetes, and Optimer Pharmaceuticals’ fidaxomicin (Dificid) for C. difficile infections.

  • http://www.thinkresultsmarketing.com Jenn LeBlanc

    Completely agree. Naming products in the pharma space is so much more cpmplex as there are even more criteria to consider beyond brand image and the basic marketing criteria. All the good ones are taken. Not surprised about the results of the poll. The best names are still easy to pronounce and spell. Even in pharma.

    Nice post. Well done.

  • Leonard Drake

    I am baffled by half of the names of the newer medications being advertised: Yaz, Beyaz, Lyrica, et al. When I think of “Lyrica,” I think of someone or something singing. “Lyrica” has no relation to fibromyalgia, but then again, the name Tylenol doesn’t “scream” headache, either.

    And Yaz? Ever since problems were reported with Yaz we can “BE Yaz?” What the….?

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  • camerique

    tocilizumab, denosumab, ipilimumab… how about yabbadabbadomobabababy?

  • waaa

    Lets be sensitive, there’s been a lot of violence in the Edarbi region lately…

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