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Business & Regulation Business Practice, COVID-19, Standards & Regulation

What’s in a Name?

So, you’ve created a good product – great even. It could change lives and influence the trajectory of an entire industry. But without the right name, will it ever be able to live up to its full potential? A good name can evoke confidence and play a key part of a brand’s success story. Get it right, and the doors of opportunity may fling open for you. Get it wrong, and you may have to push…  

Does this ring true for pharma? We asked Scott Piergrossi, President of Creative at Brand Institute for his thoughts. With 18 years of pharmaceutical brand naming experience under his belt, he walks us through the unique considerations drug developers have to make as they breathe life (in the form of names) into their product offerings.

What makes a good name?

Naming is one of the most subjective marketing disciplines. A name that one client loves might be disliked by another. So, we try to apply objective review criteria when deciding what makes a “good” name. First, the name must support or suggest the key attributes and benefits of the product. Second, the name must be trademarkable. Third, the name must be free of any negative or inappropriate linguistic connotations or associations. Fourth, the name should be relatively easy to pronounce. I use the word “relatively” specifically for drugs because drug names are unique by nature. Lastly, and this applies only to drugs, the name must be approvable by government health agencies (for example, the FDA, EMA, Health Canada, and so on). If a drug name is not approved, none of the previous criteria matter.

Walk us through the main steps of the naming process for drug products… 

The process starts with the identification and prioritization of naming strategies. What should the name communicate, suggest, or represent from a big picture perspective? We may focus on a unique or proprietary aspect of the drug, a point of competitive differentiation, or a target audience benefit, among others. We also want to identify the target audience relative to the name. In other words, should the name resonate with and speak to patients, physicians, or both? From there, we further brainstorm creative direction to ensure we have a thoughtful and conceptually diverse creative naming brief.

After the naming strategies and creative direction are identified, the creative team will develop a number of names. In our case, we develop around 2,000 names per project. And though that may seem like a lot of names, our pre-screening alone has an attrition rate of over 90 percent. That means for every 100 names we create, fewer than 10 survive our initial prescreens. We present about 75 names that we feel offer the best fit (for example, in terms of commercial appeal and adherence to all applicable regulatory guidelines).

After discussion with the client, around 50 names proceed to in-depth trademark screens. These trademark searches typically return around 20 name candidate survivors. We then test these names using our market research model, which includes a name safety analysis, meaning the name cannot be confused with another drug name, which could lead to a medication error. We also test the names from a commercial/marketing perspective. We utilize both the regulatory and marketing data to make name recommendations to our clients.

Typically, six to eight names are recommended for our clients to consider submitting to regulatory authorities. 

What challenges do you typically encounter during the process? 

Pharmaceutical products are the only type of product that require government approval of the brand name before it can be marketed under that name. One of the primary reasons for this is to reduce or eliminate medication errors – and that’s exactly what a government health agency should be doing. But it also means that new drug names must be unique.

If we’re developing a global brand name for a drug, it will need to be sufficiently different from more than 150,000 names! It’s challenging but also one of the most rewarding parts of the job: creating a new drug brand name that is strategically on target, memorable, and approvable by health agencies. When I watch the nightly news and I see all the drug names my company developed, I feel a great sense of accomplishment.

How do consumers/patients typically react to names?

During our market research phase, we test the names with members of the target audience, which typically includes patients and healthcare professionals. Our recommendations incorporate this data, so our clients know how each name ranks from a memorability perspective and how it fits the product concept or specific product attributes. Once the drug and its name are approved, it takes some time for the name to build awareness on the market, and for the brand to build equity. And that’s the same for consumer product names, company names, and every other type of new brand name.

How does the naming process for COVID-19 vaccines differ from other products?

The process for naming vaccines is similar to the process for naming other drugs, but what tends to differ is the name style. Vaccine names often incorporate the product’s indication and are typically more descriptive by nature. Pharmaceutical names are more suggestive and may be more benefit-driven, or perhaps reflective of the drug’s mechanism of action, or incorporate elements of the product’s generic name.

One of the main differences in our work developing the COVID-19 vaccine brand names was the overall timeline. A process that typically takes about two years (including the time taken for regulatory approval and global trademark searches) was condensed into 6–8 months.

In the case of COVID-19 vaccines, most people still refer to the vaccines by company name rather than vaccine name. Is this a problem?

It’s not a problem. Vaccines often do not have high brand name awareness among the general public. Physicians know the brand names for vaccines that they prescribe, but unless a vaccine is advertised, consumers will be unaware; for example, most consumers do not know the brand names for influenza vaccines. However, these products still need brand names as a means of differentiation, for patient safety, and because they are intellectual property.

Months before the COVID-19 vaccines were approved, the media’s reporting and public discussion always included a reference to the manufacturer: the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the Moderna vaccine, and so on – and that’s still very much the case. Time will tell if that changes, but these brand names are now part of the lexicon of approved pharmaceutical nomenclature.


Brand Institute has helped develop thousands of brand names for pharmaceutical products and vaccines, including Paxlovid (Pfizer), Eylea (Regeneron), Imbruvica (Janssen), Gardasil (Merck), and Spikevax (Moderna), among many others.

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About the Author
Maryam Mahdi

Deputy Editor

After finishing my degree, I envisioned a career in science communications. However, life took an unexpected turn and I ended up teaching abroad. Though the experience was amazing and I learned a great deal from it, I jumped at the opportunity to work for Texere. I'm excited to see where this new journey takes me!

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