Why Are Drugs Getting Such Weird Brand Names?

Oddball product names are one of the occupational hazards of biotech writing. Drugs in particular can be hard to spell, and often hard to pronounce. While I can practically type telaprevir, telaprevir, telaprevir in my sleep at this point, I can almost feel the reader reaction when that scientific name flows from my keyboard.


Alas, there’s no Steve Jobs-style marketing whiz in this business, handing down tablets from the heavens, and bestowing upon them a magical name like “iPad.” But lately, the business of giving brand names to prescription drugs seems to have gone from boring to weird.

Check a few of the newly-coined drug names—Incivek, Adcetris, Yervoy, Viibryd, Zytiga, Xgeva. Somewhere, the folks who sell Coca-Cola must be giggling at their friends who went into pharmaceuticals. How are you supposed to create an identity for a product, when people can’t even spell or pronounce it, much less have any sense of what it means?

There’s a reason so many drug names look so weird. A good drug name is supposed to check lots of boxes. It should be easy for doctors to spell accurately when they scribble it down on a prescription pad. It should be memorable. It should be used in every country around the world without triggering some cultural confusion or sensitivity. It ought to be consistent with the science or clinical application that distinguished the product through years of development, yet the brand name shouldn’t be so geeky that it’s obtuse for patients. Ideally, you’d want it to trigger some relevant connection to your product.

It’s all easier said than done, says Vince Budd, the senior vice president at Addison Whitney, a brand consulting firm in Charlotte, NC. Besides the creative challenge of doing all that, there are legal and regulatory barriers for pharma companies. Lawyers for the drug companies watch carefully to make sure no one is infringing on any of their thousands of brand trademarks, to make sure nobody can ride the coattails of a consumer hit like Pfizer’s sildenafil (Viagra). Once a name can be shown to be unique from a trademark perspective, it’s still got a long way to go. Companies can easily spend more than a year, sometimes two years, getting through the creative process, the trademark process, and then FDA approval process.

The FDA is getting particularly tough, rejecting about four out of every 10 name proposals, because it wants to avoid medication mix-ups that can lead to dangerous—sometimes deadly—adverse reactions, Budd says. The poster child for brand confusion is Celebrex (a pain medication) getting mixed up with Celexa (an anti-depressant).

“If you want to name a potato chip, all you have to know is whether you can own the trademark,” Budd says. The effort to become uber-differentiated from everything else in pharmaceuticals, Budd says, leads to some of those new names you see. “You’re getting names that are crazier and crazier,” he says.

There are really two different of drugs to think about for naming purposes. There are drugs that are trying to reach mainstream consumers, and drugs that really only need to connect with physicians. Budd, whose firm helped name a new drug for depression, Viibryd, was hoping to convey … Next Page »

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