With a Name Like Xalkori

New drug names aren’t just bizarre—they’re dangerous.

What would Don Draper make of Xalkori? Pfizer’s lung cancer drug, released in 2011, has a name that would make an old-school ad wizard scratch his Brylcreemed head.

It begins with one of the least commonly used letters of the alphabet. It’s impossible, at first glance, to know how to pronounce it correctly. It looks like it could be the name of one of the creatures from the Star Wars cantina.

In any other industry, calling your product Xalkori would be the business blunder of the century. But this isn’t any other industry; this is pharma.

“Xalkori is not just a crazy name,” says R. John Fidelino, who, as director of creative at the firm InterbrandHealth, helped bring the word into existence.

Interbrand is an international marketing consultancy responsible for some of the most strikingly odd words to enter the lexicon in recent years. In addition to Xalkori, Interbrand created Zelboraf, Yondelis, and Horizant. It also helped invent Prozac and Viagra—words that initially seemed bizarre but are now instantly recognizable.

Fidelino walked me through the thought process that leads him and colleagues to a name like Xalkori. Their objectives are twofold: First, Fidelino needs to come up with a name that can be trademarked. (It also helps if the name doesn’t have a negative connotation in any foreign languages.)

His second goal, both more important and more difficult, is to come up with a name that can win approval from the Food and Drug Administration and its counterpart the European Medicines Agency.

The FDA has veto power over the monikers attached to all brand-name prescription drugs sold in the United States. (Generic drug names, which are often even more bizarre than their brand-name counterparts, go through a different and much more complicated approval process.)

When considering a brand name for approval, FDA reviewers run tests to see how likely it is that a proposed name could be mistaken for an already existing drug with a similar-sounding or similar-looking name. They do handwriting tests to catch names that might look alike when scribbled out on a prescription pad. They also reject any names that could be seen as a boast about the drug’s power or efficacy, which is why you won’t see any drugs named Cholesterol Busters, or Angina-B-Gone. (Too bad. I’d love to see a commercial for that one.)

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