The secrets of naming drugs: How do companies come up with them?

Coronavirus

If you watch television, you see ad after ad for drug after drug.   

Drugs actually have three names:  a chemical name, an international non-proprietary name and a brand name. It’s the brand name that drug manufacturers usually hope we know.  

But coming up with brand names is not easy.   

“When people think of naming they think of Madmen,” Laurel Sutton told PIX11.  She’s the Co-Founder of a product naming company called Catchword. “They think a bunch of people go to a bar and have some beers and write some names down on cocktail napkins and say ‘brilliant, this is the name.’ And that’s not how naming is done.”   

Instead, brand naming of drugs is generally a lengthy process. Naming companies must investigate trademark and name availability as well as whether the Internet domain name is available. 

For drugs there also are FDA requirements. The process can take months and cost tens of thousands of dollars.   

For drugs, there also are FDA requirements.  Plus, namers must avoid confusion in the sound and spelling of new drugs.   

“We will present approximately 100 of our best name ideas to our clients for consideration,” Scott Piergrossi told us in an email. He’s President, Creative of Miami-based Brand Institute, the company that developed brand names for both Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines. 

Piergrossi said his company may start with more than 1,000 names and whittle them down.  

The names Brand Institute came up with and the companies approved: Comirnaty for Pfizer’s product and Spikevax for Moderna’s. 

“It’s a very aggressive name,” Sutton said of Spikevax.  “Perhaps that’s what we need for a COVID vaccine. Something that sounds like it’s really gonna knock it out.”   

As for Comirnaty: “Not great for a brand name,” in Sutton’s opinion. ”They wanted it to say… Community. Immunity.  mRNA. Immunization.  And you just sort of wind up with an alphabet soup of words that are all mashed together.”  

“Comirnaty and Spikevax were chosen following Brand Institute’s proven pharmaceutical brand name development process,” according to Brand Institute’s Piergrossi.  

He said that the full process can take more than a year.

“Approximately 75 names will proceed into global trademark screens. That list is typically reduced to 20-25 names that are recommended for further legal investigation… market research and… linguistic analysis in over 40 languages.”  

But these brand names aren’t aimed at consumers. These vaccines aren’t sold over the counter.  

Medical professionals deal with them. So, does a potentially awkward brand name like Comirnaty really matter much?   

 “It’s perfectly fine and perfectly serviceable,” according to branding authority Laurel Sutton. “And people are going to call it the Pfizer vaccine anyway.”   

So, it makes you wonder, why all the fuss and expense over brand names in the first place?

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