The creative science of coining drug names

With more than 30,000 proprietary drugs in the United States alone, coming up with a unique brand name is no easy task.

Cialis, Eliquis, Jevtana, Xgeva. These drug names may sound silly, but the process of creating and testing them is anything but. With more than 30,000 proprietary drugs in the United States alone, coming up with a unique brand name is no easy task. And while these names may seem like they were created by over-caffeinated Scrabble players, they are usually the result of intense focus by creative name development professionals coupled with clear-eyed research designed to enhance the prospects of Food and Drug Administration approval.

The stakes are high. With a new drug name, there is only one chance to make a first impression with patients, doctors, and people who may someday need the medication. So that name must work as hard as possible. Ideally, it should communicate some aspect of the marketing message. The message may be subtle or direct, suggest benefits or features, trigger a positive image, and more. Viagra, for example, sounds a bit like vigor and vitality, two relevant themes for erectile dysfunction. Effective names hold extraordinary potential.

Yet there are limits on the naming process. New drug names undergo a rigorous review by the FDA. Part of this review aims to ferret out new names that look or sound like existing drugs, a problem that contributes to thousands of medication errors each year. Some companies with a new drug to name try to do it in-house with pizza-fueled brainstorming. While that can work, many companies turn to a consultancy that specializes in brand name development.

The first step of the process is to write what’s called a creative brief. It serves two functions: to inform and inspire the copywriters, linguists, poets, verbal identity specialists, and others charged with creating a new name; and to serve as a guide in evaluating the creative output.

A common misconception is that creative people stare at the ceiling or free associate until an idea blooms in the brain. That’s usually not the case. Ideas, like fire, need fuel to ignite. Naming fuel includes thesauri and Google, of course, but also cowboy dictionaries, surfer dictionaries, encyclopedias of gems and minerals, Sanskrit rhyming dictionaries, and the big book of sports metaphors, to name just a few sources.

The goal of the naming team is to represent the drug — a complicated formulation that confers various primary and secondary benefits — with a single word that communicates a core aspect of those benefits. Take an inhaled asthma drug as an example. The creative teams may focus on the simple yet rich idea of air, and draw inspiration from any number of sources. Working with the idea of air, a copywriter could spend hours poring over numerous aeronautical tomes including a dictionary of flight, “Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft,” a book of aviator slang, and the 1938 edition of “The Glossary of Meteorological Terms.”Naming experts also turn to sound symbolism. Again, working with the idea of air, a linguist might develop names that rely on sounds made with the letters “b” and “p,” which are vocalized with bursts or puffs of air through the lips. Words like puff, poof, balloon, burst, blow, and breath are examples of sound symbolism in action.

After a week or so of intensive individual ideation, it’s time for the contributors to compare notes. They share the names they came up with and the thinking behind them. Then they go their separate ways to create another round of names building on the ideas of the group. These techniques can generate a thousand or more possible names, which must be winnowed to three to five finalists. While that process is rigorous (and sometimes contentious), names that move forward to the next step tend to deliver on descriptive, evocative, semantic, linguistic, emotional, and rational cues. Then the fun ends and it’s time to choose a winner that will have a high chance of making it through the gauntlet of FDA guidelines — most of which limit the kind of communication messages that are part of any namer’s DNA. Of course, not all elements of a branding message are purely rational. We once worked with a poet to add an emotional element to a new drug name. She wasn’t told anything about the product, what it could be used for, or any related cues. The only direction she received was to develop names that evoked the imagery of clouds, skies, and gentle breezes.

After a week or so of intensive individual ideation, it’s time for the contributors to compare notes. They share the names they came up with and the thinking behind them. Then they go their separate ways to create another round of names building on the ideas of the group.

These techniques can generate a thousand or more possible names, which must be winnowed to three to five finalists. While that process is rigorous (and sometimes contentious), names that move forward to the next step tend to deliver on descriptive, evocative, semantic, linguistic, emotional, and rational cues.

Then the fun ends and it’s time to choose a winner that will have a high chance of making it through the gauntlet of FDA guidelines — most of which limit the kind of communication messages that are part of any namer’s DNA.

The FDA’s Division of Medication Error Prevention and Analysis does the first review. In a process that can take up to six months, it subjects the name to an exhaustive battery of tests, and rejects about one-third of them.

Names are nixed for reasons too numerous to detail here. A few of the main ones are that the name is too close to the name of an existing drug in spelling, scripted appearance, or pronunciation. The division may also reject names that suggest the drug’s dosing, effectiveness, usage, or superiority.

Naming a new drug is a fun but challenging endeavor. Pharmaceutical companies operate in the crowded and noisy competitive landscape of human health with restricted communication goals and exacting rules imposed by a powerful and influential government agency. Combine that with a finite number of letters with which to work, and they face a considerable challenge when naming a new drug.

So the next time you see an ad for Adlyxin or Byvalson or Taltz, try to imagine the options that were considered and rejected before these names were approved.

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