4 Pitfalls To Cooking Up Tasty Drug Names


I love potatoes. Always have. I love roasted potatoes even more. It may have something to do with my dad growing up on a potato farm in New Brunswick, Canada. So when I recently scrolled across a big glossy photo of roasted potatoes under the title, “6 Things You Are Doing Wrong When Roasting Vegetables,” I devoured it. The first sentence asks: “Roasting potatoes seems easy enough, right?” Well, the answer is yes. But reading on, I learned that when you want the crispiest, the most golden, the best caramelized roasted potatoes ever, you must avoid making some basic mistakes.

Which brings me to drug naming––mostly because I love that too. Many companies turn to a standard drug-naming recipe to develop new drug names. But to rustle up truly scrumptious names, companies need to cook like chefs, or else they’ll wind up with––yep––half-baked names. Here are some common pitfalls, along with several tips to help you dish up more flavorful drug names:

1. You take the “fast food” approach to naming.

A name is the essential ingredient of every brand: it’s the “first impression”; it’s the key sound bite; it’s the ubiquitous salesperson. A drug name is critical to healthcare professionals, to patients, to the press, and to Wall Street. Pharma companies who understand its value know that there’s a massive difference between expenditures for, say, office furniture––and investing in your brand identity. By embracing an investment approach, companies emphasize the significance and quality of naming over “fast-food” naming (i.e. names prepared quickly in quantity by standardized methods). Their return on investment? Tastier drug names.

2. You have too many ingredients spoiling the broth.

Jamming the whole megillah of product information into your drug name leads to creative chaos. The most important ingredient for crafting great drug names is focus. Hone a razor-sharp strategy, a strong positioning (or a Target Product Profile), and killer supporting messages before developing names. Allow other brand elements––such as the logo––to augment communication. The new Boehringer Ingelheim (BI) respiratory drug, Spiolto® Respimat® ( Stiolto® Respimat® in the U.S.), demonstrates a well-executed naming strategy. Our goal was to communicate an advanced, combination drug “built on…Spiriva® (tiotropium), enhanced by olodaterol (sold by BI as Striverdi®).” The name Spiolto was created to convey both Spiriva® and olodaterol (with a hint of the benefit of “improvements in lung functioning" by mimicking the musical term sciolto, meaning “free, loosely”).

3. You’re NOT pursuing a different kettle of fish.

Job #1 of brand naming is differentiation. The trouble is that it’s hard to resist the tendency to favor the familiar. Many successful drug names, however, were completely unfamiliar (i.e. “a different kettle of fish”) when they were conceived. Names like Viagra® and Xanax®, for example, have carved out such unique trademark turf that the competition is forced to tiptoe around them. Creating distinctive names has the added attraction of helping companies steer clear of these drug-naming faux pas:

• Misleading similarity—Look-alike and sound-alike drug names can lead to medical mix-ups. A recent FDA drug safety alert cited confusion due to name similarity between Brilinta® (an anti-blood clotting medication) and Brintellix® (an antidepressant).

• Marginal distinctiveness—New drug names possessing the same letter strings as existing drug names can be expected given the myriad pharma trademarks and trademark filings. Still, many common letter strings––such as /gen/, /cel/, and /nex/––are so dilute in the drug-naming space that their use minimizes trademark value.

4. You overcrowd the pan.

Market research on drug names is commonly conducted with healthcare professionals and consumers to help identify the strengths and weaknesses of new names. When there are too many names to evaluate in a typical drug naming market research study (i.e. “overcrowding the pan”), the concern is respondent wear out breeding blasé responses. Companies putting more than 15 names into a single study––and I hear of companies testing 20 names at once––risk spurious results.

Mix in these tips to add oomph to your drug-naming recipe, and avoid tepid drug names. Bon appétit.

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