Patt Morrison

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The mystery and mythology of picking names for new pharmaceuticals

by Patt Morrison

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Bottles of antiretroviral drug Truvada are displayed at Jack's Pharmacy on November 23, 2010 in San Anselmo, California. A study published by the New England Journal of Medicine showed that men who took the daily antiretroviral pill Truvada significantly reduced their risk of contracting HIV. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Viagra, Rogaine, Cialis and Propecia are some of the marquee brand names for big pharma’s never ending array of drugs, but the list goes on and on. There is Evista, Essure, Velcade, Alora, Levitra, Zubrin, Meridia, Xigris, Strattera and Humira. And let’s not forget RePro, Velcade, Humalog, Vree, ZipWik and GemZar.

It’s a dizzying cavalcade of blandly inoffensive names for drugs that may or may not mean anything, yet sound subtly suggestive of what they might actually do. Picking a name for a new drug is a complicated proposition, and pharmaceutical companies spend around $3 million to come up with a name like Viagra and get it approved. Given that regulators reject as many as 50 percent of the names that are proposed — and it isn’t uncommon for a multi-million dollar advertising campaign to back up a new product — a lot of time and research goes into conjuring up these monikers.

Jerry Philips, president and CEO of the Drug Safety Institute, a subsidiary of Brand Institute, drug consulting company and former FDA official, says that there actually is some science and creative strategy behind a lot of the names. Lipitor, for example, derives from "lipi" which refers to lipids, or fats, and "tor" which comes from the name of the generic version of the drug, atorvastatin. The name begins to provide an image of what the drug is going to be used for. 

"There are other names that I would call 'blank canvas' names," says Philips. "They don't really have meaning at all. If you think about the name Prozac, for example, everybody knows what Prozac is and everyone has a meaning associated with Prozac today, but when it was developed, it really had no meaning at all. it acquired a meaning once it was introduced into the marketplace." 

Andrea Carla Michaels, head namer at ACME Naming, a branding firm in San Francisco, recommends the book "Word Craft" by Alex Frankel. It has a whole chapter on drug names, focusing on how Viagra came to be, one step at a time. 

Michaels finds that in coming up with a name for a product, it's necessary to separate out the perimeters: is a consumer-friendly name right for a product? Should it have high integrity specifically for doctors? Or if the drug itself is used for serious treatment, should it have a friendly name?

Is there anything that should be avoided?

Both Michaels and Philips agree that making false claims and misleading patients and consumers are not helpful.

Listeners had a variety of responses: one caller who is HIV-positive believed that the names are unnecessarily complicated. Another, Joey from Huntington Beach is a former pharmacy technician. He used to try and figure out what all the names meant. His favorite, he remarks, is Ambien, which is a drug used to treat insomnia. He discovered that "am" derives from "morning" and "bien" comes from the Spanish word for good. So Ambien lets consumers know that although it is a sleep drug, they will wake up feeling good in the morning.

Joe from Sherman Oaks, a marketing professor at USC, mentions the research that studies the effects that phonetics has on consumers and notes that many agencies are reading these studies and using them to come up with names.


How much does a name for a drug matter? What makes naming pharmaceutical products different from naming other goods and services?


Jerry Philips, president and CEO of the Drug Safety Institute, a subsidiary of Brand Institute, durg consulting company ; former FDA official

Andrea Carla Michaels, head namer, ACME Naming, a branding firm in San Francisco; worked on branding the first home HIV test in 1993

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