Did you ever wonder how drugs get their names? This really is at the very core of what we do when we work with pharmaceutical companies. We build exhibits and create experiential events to promote their products. We should probably know the basics on how they come to be named. And, well, it is an interesting and complex process. The following distills a very lengthy and multi-faceted process to the highlights because, well, this is a blog and not a thesis.

Recently the FDA launched a study to find out if the names of drugs sway or influence how consumers or HCPs feel about the effectiveness of those drugs. In other words, if a company that sells a migraine drug names it Migraineawaylia, well, that isn’t going to fly. Pharmaceutical companies must avoid naming drugs that highlight a drug’s attributes or that have similar names to other drugs already on the market. And in this case, another practical consideration would be that name is a little long. Try fitting Migraineawaylia on a medicine bottle!

There are also FDA guidelines to be followed and companies in the business of making drugs must submit their proposed names to various organizations for approval. But, as already stated, it’s a complicated process. So complicated in fact, I think those involved in this process may even need to take a drug to help them get through it! Let’s make one up and call it Complitivity … a drug that helps keep creativity flowing during a complicated process. Side effects could be over stimulation in the frontal and parietal cortices, oh and let’s not forget constipation. Isn’t that a side effect in every drug commercial you’ve ever seen? Okay, I think you are starting to get a sense of arduous process involved in naming a drug and getting it approved.

In some cases, naming a drug can take as long as four years. Maybe it’s a marketing person thing, but think of how much fun it would be to be on the team that gets to name the new drug! It’s like finding out you’re going to have a baby and getting to name it. In other industries, if the name is available, you use it. But when naming a drug, the name has to be reviewed and deemed safe and unique before it is approved.

There are two distinct processes for naming a drug, creating a generic drug name and creating a brand name. The process begins with creating a generic drug name. Because people travel so much more nowadays, a global universal standard is used, and two different organizations are involved in approving the names of generic drugs:

  1. United States Adopted Names (USAN) Council
  2. World Health Organizations (WHO)

Generic names are based on a formula utilizing a suffix, that is meant to relay an important piece of information to HCPs about how the drug works in the body. When choosing a prefix considering how the name sounds when pronounced or whether it is hard to pronounce is important. Some definite rules apply and here are a few:

  • It has to use two syllables in the prefix. This helps differentiate it from other drugs.
  • Has to avoid using certain letters. As mentioned earlier, names should be global in appeal, keeping in mind some languages do not use the letters H, J, K, W and Y so aren’t used when creating the prefix.
  • No marketing allowed. No company name or anything considered promotional, like Cure-all or Greatest.
  • Avoid medical terminology. For instance, let’s say you developed a pediatric drug and used “pedi” in the prefix but down the road you found out the drug could be used for a completely different treatment. This would be very limiting, so medical terminology is avoided.

When accepted, the USAN then submits the name to WHO on behalf of the company and another review process takes place. Once WHO accepts the name, it is published on International Nonproprietary Names (INN) list for 4 months, providing the public the opportunity to raise concerns over the name. If none are raised, the company can begin to use the accepted name rather than the code.  

So those are the highlights of the process to name generic drugs, but how does this differ from the process to approve the brand name?

The brand name is the name you and I are probably going to be most familiar with and from a marketer’s perspective the one that is fun to name! While there are certainly constraints, there is definitely room for a little more creativity.

First, safety is considered and the name should in some way represent the drug. This can be in achieved through abstract ideas, the tone of the name, or through imagery. It is the name that will stick with the drug and be used by the company even when the patent expires. For instance, do you go into a store and typically ask for acetaminophen (generic) or Tylenol (brand)?

Another example of the thought process behind naming a drug was the one used to name Viagra. I think we all know by now what this drug is for but I didn’t realize the significance of the name. Think about it, and think about how the name gives a slight nod to the words vitality and vigor. Enough said.

Just like the process for naming a generic drug, there are many rules that need to be followed when creating the brand name, some of them are:

  1. The name can’t be promotional or make overt claims about its effectiveness. For instance, if you created a drug that reduces swelling of the ears, the FDA would probably not approve the name Smallearia (do I need to tell you I made that up?)
  2. A long list of potential names, sometimes as many as 200, is created and then narrowed down by completing the following:
    • Trademark screening to ensure the name is unique.
    • A linguistics check is completed to ensure it translates well. A name that translates in another country to something inappropriate or embarrassing is not a good thing
    • Market research will be conducted to get a sense of the “likability” or memorability of the name.
  3. After these steps are complete, the favorite name is then submitted to the FDA.

So there you have it. Hopefully the drug name is approved because if not, well, you probably will need to repeat some of the process. Ugh!

So what’s in a name? At Poretta & Orr we pour our heart and soul into every project and we create awesomeness or we don’t do it. And we know the FDA would approve.

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