Drug names walk fine line

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Naming a prescription drug is a lengthy, expensive process.

The combined naming and branding effort can take nine to 13 months and cost $10 million to $20 million per product per year, says Julie A. Laitin, president of New York-based Laitin Enterprises, which specializes in branding direct-to-consumer products.

"The time involved and the marketing expenses are why so few companies are involved in the naming process," says Ms. Laitin.

Miami-based Brand Institute and New York-based Interbrand Gerstman & Meyers are also some of the larger companies naming and branding DTC products for a myriad of companies.

Brand Institute President-CEO James L. Dettore named 300 DTC products in 1999, including Glaxo Wellcome's Relenza. A multipage medical description of the flu drug, given to him by the marketer, was boiled down to a few words: "a treatment for influenza." Those four words had to be whittled to one.


The word Relenza, which "speaks to reliability while subtly hinting at influenza," made the cut for one reason, says Mr. Dettore. "It was marketable."

Choosing just one word is a grueling process that involves extensive research, says Vincent J. Morella, executive director of pharmaceutical naming for Interbrand, which named the antidepressant Prozac for Eli Lilly & Co. Prozac, he says, is a name without a hidden meaning.

Mr. Morella says Interbrand takes hundreds of name submissions and narrows them down to about two dozen. Then Interbrand's research staff crosschecks a multitude of databases to ensure the list of names does not include names of patented or generic drugs. It also checks for foreign translation errors, similar-sounding and spelled names and ease of pronunciation.

Next, a battery of tests using medical professionals simulates the prescription process -- from writing it to reading it to saying the name. One name ultimately goes to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.

Jerry Phillips, director of the FDA's Office of Postmarketing Drug Risk Assessment, subjects the name to a laundry list of regulatory reviews.


"The name cannot contain medical modifiers, prefixes, suffixes or numbers that can lead to prescription error," says Mr. Phillips. For example, BPH, which stands for benign prostatic hyperplasia, could not be used in the name for a product that deals with men's urinary problems because it could unfairly sway medical professionals to believe the drug remedies the condition. A number cannot be used because it may be confused with dosage.

Names that can unfairly sway consumer or physician opinion about the product also will not pass the test. For example, Pharmacia & Upjohn's Rogaine for hair loss was originally named Regain, but the FDA rejected the name, saying that it suggested anyone could grow hair as a result of the drug.


Mr. Phillips' unit runs yet another check to ensure that the name is not patented or is from a generic product. If the name doesn't conform to FDA regulations, then the process starts all over again. If Mr. Phillips' staff finds there are no violations, the name is approved and the ad agency steps in to begin the branding process.

"Before we develop advertising, we look at claims of what the product does," says Cindy Machles, Grey Healthcare's exec VP and general manager for global branding, who adds that they then look to address the consumer's emotional needs. "We sum it up in four or five words to use in the marketing campaign."

Ms. Machles is part of a team for New York-based Grey Advertising that is developing ads for Glaxo Wellcome's Flovent for asthma suffers. Although Flovent doesn't have one particular four-to-five word tag, the theme Grey Advertising runs through all of the drug's ads involves the outdoors and fresh air.

"In naming and branding, you don't want to alienate your professional. There has to be a message appropriate for all of the parties [the consumers, doctors and pharmacists]," says Rich Levy, president-chief operating officer of Adair-Greene Healthcare Communications, Atlanta, which represents SmithKline Beecham's anti-depressant Paxil. That drug takes its root from the Latin "pax" for peace.

But the message has to ring true.

"There must also be fair balance," says Mr. Phillips. "The ad should not overstate the benefit of the drug."

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