Suzanne Martinez, Intouch Proto

All in one word

The naming of brands is a difficult matter.

By Suzanne Martinez

The naming of brands is one of the enigmas of the business of pharmaceuticals. Thousands of people might be involved in the work of developing, manufacturing, or promoting a drug brand during its lifetime, but very few of them actually get to touch the process of deciding the name by which the world will know that brand. Inside pharma companies, decisions about names are typically limited to a small subset of executives; externally, while the marketplace is packed with successful pharma marketing agencies, only a handful of pharma naming experts and consultants exist, and none are particularly talkative about the specifics related to the naming process. So even to long-time veterans of pharma and pharma marketing and branding, the naming of brands is a bit of a mystery. 

It has been my own good fortune, though, to spend many years helping to develop names for pharma brands. And there’s really no reason for secrecy; anyone involved in the business of pharma brands ought to at least have a sense of how a brand’s name gets chosen and the challenges inherent in making that choice. So here’s my attempt to clear up a bit of the mystery. 

How are names created and chosen?

Very carefully. It’s best to begin by the time a compound is going into Phase III trials, if not before. Every agency has its own proprietary process, but in general the first step is developing an understanding of the molecule, how it works, what makes it special, what would drive someone to prescribe it over another, and what the patient experience will be like. A good name ought to include a clear strategy for what to communicate based on business objectives. Ideally, a name encodes a comprehensive story that checks the box on as many of these objectives as possible. Once the brand team has an understanding of the asset and has defined the brand strategy, it’s time to get smart people with diverse backgrounds together – my own was in biomedical visualization (a.k.a. medical illustration) – to brainstorm creative avenues for name development that deliver on the brand strategy. The eventual list of resulting names can’t be limitless, though; any names that are to be seriously considered must go through an aggressive and time-consuming process of legal review and must also undergo screening to ensure name candidates overcome regulatory and linguistic barriers. Many brands may also want to do field research to see how HCPs and patients respond to different names, which adds yet another layer of consideration, albeit not the first priority. Of course any given company is going to have multiple players who will have to weigh in, at the marketing and often at the corporate level. Oftentimes the naming process goes through multiple rounds of development as the team hones in on a sweet spot of addressing marketing, business, and brand objectives while also surviving any potential legal, regulatory, and linguistic challenges. Plenty of names seemingly on strategy and a great fit to brand objectives are going to get shot down along the way for one reason or another, especially if shortcuts in the name development have been taken to save time. 

What makes a good name?

The best names manage to deliver on the brand strategy, resonate with HCP and patient stakeholders, and differentiate the brand in a memorable way. This could mean encoding ideas and/or letters specific to the compound itself, the science behind it, the indication(s); or it could mean conveying a less tangible but just as important emotional benefit; or perhaps even several of these attributes all in a single name. Achieving any of that, of course, is easier said than done in the pharma regulatory and trademark environment, which is why truly great names in pharma are hard to come by; a good name has to overcome regulatory, legal, and linguistic challenges while still communicating key marketing objectives. It also helps for names to be tonally interesting, relatively easy to write and pronounce, and consistently pronounceable from one region to the next, though those are lower-priority objectives.

Aside from it being, you know, a good name, what else goes into choosing a name?

Pharma brand names can’t make unsubstantiated claims. The meaning of claim can vary from one region’s regulatory authorities to the next – in other words, claims might mean different things in different languages and jurisdictions. This means a potential name has to be considered and evaluated in any and every language in which it might be marketed. Ever wonder why it’s Gleevec in the United States and Glivec everywhere else? Perhaps it could be because U.S. regulatory authorities had one idea of what “glee” meant and the folks overseas had another. Champix/Chantix is another example. “Champ” may have sounded like a claim to one regulatory body but not to another – only those behind the scenes would know the reason, and my guess is there’s a good one.

The name can’t sound like any other pharmaceutical drug brand due to safety concerns. Regulatory authorities don’t want a mistake in which someone receives the wrong medication at the pharmacy because the name of the prescription looks or sounds like another drug. HCPs still may handwrite a prescription, and regulators use tools to evaluate orthographic similarities to other pharmaceutical brand names in order to assess how closely the names resemble something else. This analysis goes beyond simple spelling similarities; the FDA uses an advanced algorithm called P.O.C.A. (phonetic and orthographic computer analysis) during brand name review processes to determine orthographic and phonetic similarities between drug names. That could be one of many reasons why we see so many unusual letter combinations in pharma brand names. 

We all can imagine the horror stories that might result if a brand name or tagline were used in another market without conducting due diligence regarding translation. So of course every potential pharma brand name that is to be used in non-English speaking markets should be reviewed from a linguistic perspective to be sure that the name or any parts of it doesn’t have quirky idiomatic meanings or negative connotations. 

Pfizer, Viagra

Pfizer chose a name for its little blue pill that communicated power, strength, and virility.

What are some of the best pharma brand names?

Viagra. It is an example of a name focused on something other than functional features; instead, the creator of the name – my former colleague R. John Fidelino – has said the intention from a tonal perspective was to communicate power, strength, and virility. “It expresses vim, vigor, and vitality that a man was looking to experience and achieve in overcoming erectile dysfunction,” Fidelino told National Geographic in a recent interview.1 

Celebrex. In this case the strategy was most likely to drive HCP memorability by encoding the prefix of the generic name – celecoxib – while at the same time hinting at the benefits of optimism and celebration that come with relief from chronic pain. There’s a whole other practice when it comes to the determination of what the non-proprietary name (the generic name) should be. Again, there are regulatory authorities involved here, although separate and distinct from the FDA (in the United Stated) or EMA (in the EU). The generic name is almost like a mini scientific formula, again with lots of rules about what you can say, what you can’t, and even what part of the name is available for a splash of creativity (the prefix) versus parts of the name that are assigned based on the class of medication (the stem/suffix). For more info, spend a little time on the United Stated Adopted Names Council (USAN) website (; you will gain a new appreciation for why those generic names are so long and seemingly cumbersome.


Kymriah has a softer name than most oncology drugs, highlighting this CAR T therapy’s individualized nature.

Kymriah. Many oncology drugs use strong, bold names that are meant to communicate efficacy and power. Kymriah, though, is a CAR T therapy, a form of precision/personalized medicine. The name appears to be designed to sound a bit softer, almost as if it were a person’s name – highlighting a key aspect of this medication through tone instead of specific letter strings. Given the nature of CAR T therapy, how it is developed and the mechanism through which these medicines work, the name Kymriah does a good job of communicating everything about the highly individualized nature of this therapy. 

Is naming fun?

The pharma brand naming process is a true mix of science and art – of left brain and right brain. Marketers are tasked with boiling all the data, all the marketing goals, all the needs of the brand down to a single word that can survive legal and regulatory processes (often for multiple regions, not just in one country). The brand name is one of many brand elements, yet it is often this singular element that is the door opener to so many other things, everything from the logo and visual identity system to the all-important conversation between a patient and their doctor about trying a new medication – in a sense everything that is central to marketing may start with a name. Overcoming the many challenges that come with brand name development in the health and pharmaceutical sector and being able to achieve this task of telling a story in a single word is something that, for all the complexities, never gets old. Others have said this, and I love the sentiment – “The brand name is your most compelling story reduced to its smallest form.”


  1. Colino, S. (June 10, 2022). “How drugmakers come up with evocative brand names like Viagra and Lunesta.” National Geographic.

Suzanne Martinez, Intouch Proto

Suzanne Martinez is group director, strategic planning for Eversana Intouch.