Packing Power Into Products

What's in a prescription name? Pharmaceutical groups spend millions to come up with the perfect name for their drugs before they hit the shelves.

Posted: August 10, 2008

The letter P, to some ears, stands for power. So it's no coincidence that a plethora of drugs - from Prozac to Provenge - feature this brawny consonant.

A drug's name can contribute so much to its image and sales that companies spend millions concocting syllable combinations and bouncing possibilities off consumers.

The name also must pass muster with the Food and Drug Administration, which is supposed to nix sound-alike words because they can lead to medical errors, some of them fatal.

The FDA also frowns on anything that hints at performance or hype. No GoutBGones need apply.

With competition from generic drugs accelerating and the FDA getting choosier - on Friday, it said it had approved only nine drugs so far this year - pharmaceutical companies are acting like first-time parents searching for the perfect name for their baby.

"The question you're really asking with a name is, 'What is the brand's true essence, the heart and soul that you're trying to communicate to your audience?' " said George Glatcz, president of Vox Medica Inc., a Philadelphia marketing and communications company focused on the health-care industry.

"Harley-Davidson's true brand essence is rebellious freedom," Glatcz said.

In the same way, he said, Angeliq, a menopause drug sold by Bayer Schering Pharma AG, signifies femininity and beauty. (Never mind that sound-alike celebrity Angelina Jolie is decidedly not menopausal.)

The right name can translate into billions of dollars, said Bill Trombetta, professor of pharmaceutical marketing at St. Joseph's University. He figures that Pfizer Inc. will have earned about $40 billion by the time the company's patent on Lipitor, the world's best-selling drug, expires in 2011.

Lipitor succeeded because it treats a common problem, high cholesterol. But it helped that the "lip" in the name suggests "lipids," which are fats. Cholesterol is a lipid.

There was a time, of course, when people were content with names like aspirin. But a 1970s magazine article that estimated the value of the Marlboro man at $7.5 billion set off a decades-long gold rush to create the next great brand, Trombetta said.

The drug industry was relatively unaffected, he said, but then, "the drug that changed the game was Eli Lilly & Co.'s Prozac. If you remember, there was a book out called Prozac Nation."

Some consumer research suggests that the letter "p" is a power consonant, while "z" connotes speed, Trombetta said.

Colors count, too. AstraZeneca P.L.C., the London company with U.S. headquarters in Wilmington, created a giant in Nexium by changing the molecular structure of its predecessor, Prilosec, and pitching the new drug as "The Purple Pill." Viagra is the Little Blue Pill. And pills are never black, because people wear that to funerals.

Name possibilities bubble up in a number of ways. Some companies use computer programs that mix and match syllables to form new words that are then tested on consumers and health professionals. The illness itself sometimes provides a starting point. Allegra sound like an allergy treatment. Pain relievers Celebrex, Vioxx and Bextra get their X factor because they belong to a class of drugs known as cox-2 inhibitors.

Creating a drug name is so complicated that some firms specialize in it. One of the best-known is the Brand Institute, a Miami company that worked on such names as Lipitor, Merck & Co. Inc.'s Gardasil and Wyeth's new antidepressant, Pristiq.

Gardasil, a vaccine that helps ward off cervical cancer, plays on the word "guard." Unlike many other vaccines, including Cervarix, a competitor from GlaxoSmithKline P.L.C., Gardasil does not end in "x," highlighting a trend toward marketing vaccines like regular drugs.

Scott Piergrossi, the Brand Institute's vice president for creative development, said a strong name could stave off generic competition.

"That brand name is what carries that equity," he said. "And what that means is when a drug goes off patent, it's really going to be the original manufacturer's brand that they're going to have to fall back on and rely on so that loyal customers will continue to demand that drug."

The proliferation of pills has increased the chance for error. In January, United States Pharmacopeia, a nonprofit agency that sets drug standards, found that 1,470 frequently used drugs have been involved in medication errors caused by look-alike and sound-alike brand and generic names. Of these mistakes, 1.4 percent hurt patients.

In some cases, medication mix-ups have led to fatalities, according to the FDA. In 2005, the FDA said, an 8-year-old girl died after receiving methadone, a narcotic, instead of methylphenidate, an attention-deficit medication.

Susan Proulx, president of Med-E.R.R.S. Inc., a Horsham company that helps pharmaceutical companies develop names and packaging that reduce the chance of an error, relies in part on a group of doctors, nurses, pharmacists and other professionals to consider whether a proposed drug name too closely resembles an old one.

When mistakes happen, the name is usually only part of the problem, she said. GlaxoSmithKline, the London company with a U.S. headquarters in Philadelphia, last year changed the name of its cholesterol-reducing drug Omacor because of confusion with Amicar, a drug used to stem bleeding. The sound-alike name, along with similar dosing instructions, caused confusion, Proulx said.

The new name? Lovaza, borne from lower (as in lower triglycerides) and vas (as in cardiovascular). Sounds lovely, too.

Meaningful Names

Drug names are designed to appeal to and soothe patients and physicians:

Angeliq, Bayer, for menopause, plays off femininity and "angel."

Rogaine, McNeill-PPC, for hair loss. Proposed name "regaine" was rejected by FDA in U.S. as too promotional.

Lipitor, Pfizer, for high cholestorol, from "lipid," a type of fat.

Lovaza, GlaxoSmithKline, for high cholesterol, was originally Omacor, but concern about confusion with different drug Amicar led to change.

Contact staff writer Miriam Hill at 215-854-2212 or

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