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Taran March @ Quality Digest

Customer Care

When Chemistry Meets Marketing

The curious logic behind prescription drug names

Published: Monday, May 16, 2016 - 23:00

They sound like words and have a mysterious dignity rolling off the tongue. Their meanings seem both apparent and elusive. If an alien delegation landed on Earth, words like these might feature in their formal greetings. They are the most expensively researched neologisms in use around the globe.

What are they? Pharmaceutical brand names like Advil, Zantac, Lipitor, and Xolair. Azor, Exelon, Zostavax, and Chantix. Gardasil, Cubicin, Levemir, and Sensipar.

The process of taking a breakthrough chemical compound and turning it into a lucrative product involves an odd collaboration among scientists, executive risk-takers, advertising masterminds, and lofty national and international agencies, including the FDA. So much money rides on a pharmaceutical brand that its name is often under development well before the actual drug has been concocted.

The process starts in the lab with a long chemical formula such as “7-chloro-1,3-dihydro-1-methyl-5-phenyl-2H-1,4-benzodiazepin-2-one” (which sells as the muscle relaxant Diazepam). Even chemists might balk at saying that very often, so for convenience a second, generic name is created. It’s formed with a “stem” of one or more syllables that classify the drug’s structure and function. Generic names for cancer drugs, for example, often end in “mab,” a shorthand for monoclonal antibodies, which are compounds that target specific cells. Other syllables are added to the stem to give more information.

Thus, ibuprofen, that handy generic pain reliever sitting on your bathroom shelf, starts with the stem “profen” to designate its anti-inflammatory qualities, and adds “ibu” from isobutylphenyl propionic acid to differentiate it from its cousins ketoprofen and flurbiprofen. Who knew?

Generic names must meet the standards set by the World Health Organization’s International Nonproprietary Names (INN) and the United States Adopted Names Council (USAN).

What’s in a name?

Once the generic handle is created, the real fun begins. Brand names are much trickier—in all senses of the word.

Ideally, a drug brand will elicit specific emotions in consumers while also hinting at what the product will do. Drug makers can and do spend millions testing sounds and patterns of word fragments to achieve this; ad agencies are hired, linguists are called in, and psychologists are consulted. A brand name must be unique to avoid confusion with other drugs, but also ordinary enough to run the gauntlet of trademark and safety regulations without stumbling.

And it must do this, say naming specialists, using no more than four syllables and nine letters. It’s a puzzle, but we’re not talking a 10-minute crossword with your coffee here.

Sound symbolism is an obscure offshoot of linguistics, but one that has proved a boon for pharmaceutical companies. Experts in this field have identified patterns in how people infer things from made-up words, everything from size, speed, color, and sound to gender, personality, and emotions. In one test case, when subjects were asked whether Frish or Frosh as an ice cream name sounded colder and more delicious, the majority chose Frosh simply due to the soft “oh” sound.

Even single letters can offer subliminal messages. X, Z, N, Q, and K, for example, connote cutting-edge science and an abrupt end to symptoms (think Zantac and Nexium, which combat acid reflux), while S, M, V, L, and R are “soft” sounds that help sell feminine products such as Sarafem for premenstrual syndrome or the hormone replacements Provera and Vivelle.

Sounds can be used to suggest relationships. Several drugs that regulate heart rhythm end in “olol,” two syllables that mimic the double beat of a heart. The beta blockers Atenolol and Nadolol fall into this category.

Making effective use of the same tactic are names that indicate what a drug does. Glucotrol moderates blood sugar and sounds a lot like “glucose control.” Allegra combats allergy symptoms: It sounds like “allergy” but ends in the ahh of relief.

Mimicry of positive words or associations is another strategy. The prostate drug Proscar seems to imply that prostate problems will be cured as speedily as a NASCAR race, while hinting at the clubby, masculine nature of the malady as well. The antidepressant and anti-anxiety drug Paxil incorporates the Latin word pax (“peace”) to good effect. Viagra, which rhymes with Niagara, needs no explaining, while the contraceptive Angeliq, though subtler, leads the mind in the opposite direction.

This is all well and good for English speakers, but drugs that are distributed globally must have names that will sell in other languages as well. To prepare a brand for the international market, linguists will check it against dozens of languages to make sure it doesn’t connote anything negative or offensive. Drug makers have learned from Chevrolet’s classic blunder onto the international stage, where its Chevy Nova told Spanish speakers that it no va, i.e., doesn’t go.

Passing muster with the feds

When a pharmaceutical brand team has spent enough money and sleepless nights (with or without the moon-mirroring sleep aid Lunesta) devising possible brand names, they’re submitted to the FDA and the Patent Trademark Office. Names must be approved by both agencies.

The FDA rejects about a third of the 400 or so names it reviews each year, and not just due to bureaucratic obstinacy. The names are analyzed to determine if they’re too similar to drugs already on the market. To do this, the agency consults with doctors, nurses, and pharmacists: Does the proposed name look like another drug when scribbled on a prescription pad? How about when it’s ordered over the phone? The FDA takes mis-prescribing, or what it calls “adverse drug events,” very seriously.

Despite this, new drug approvals in the United States reached a 66-year high last year, and as each brand hit the marketplace, the real estate for unique names shrank a little more. It’s likely that drug makers will increasingly turn to sound symbolism to get their branding messages across to consumers. Or perhaps they will throw up their hands and use Word Lab’s satirical Drug-O-Matic name generator. You put a generic drug name in the top box, and click for one of the nine million brand names lurking in the index.

I gave it a try, using symptoms and existential angst in place of generic names. Whether these “brands” will cure me is another matter.
• Apathy at sound of alarm clock: Prumalev
• Fear of pharmacies: Celsanavo
• Where will it end?: Flalixym


About The Author

Taran March @ Quality Digest’s picture

Taran March @ Quality Digest

Taran March is Quality Digest’s editorial director A 35-year veteran of publishing, she has written and edited for newspapers, magazines, book publishers, and universities. When not plotting the course of QD with the team, she can usually be found clicking around the internet in search of news and clues to the human condition.