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San Francisco Business Times

December 2 , 2005

Octopus: How name firms got arms around a device

By Daniel S. Levine

When medical device maker Medtronic dubbed its vacuum cardiac stabilizer "Octopus," a name that called to mind the multiple arms on the device, competitors mocked the name.

Guidant's similar product Axius had the Greek and Latin sound that medical device and drugmakers favored. But it was Medtronic that had the last laugh. Like Xerox and Kleenex, the Octopus became the brand name synonymous with its device class.

"Guidant would go crazy because doctors ... would call it the Octopus, even though they had longstanding relationships with Guidant," said Steve Manning, managing director of the San Francisco-based naming and branding agency Igor. "That's what they used in surgery. It just became the ubiquitous word for it. It shaped Medtronic and caused Guidant to spend a lot of money to try to overcome this."

Guidant learned its lesson.

It turned to Igor to develop a name for a new product, a coiled string used to plug an artery as an alternate to a clamp to stop the flow of blood when making a graft to an aorta during heart surgery. The result was "Heartstring." The coiled string is removed by tugging on it. The name is not only descriptive, but is emotionally evocative, easy to remember and, like Octopus, has become the word to describe the class of devices.

Heartstring and Octopus are not alone. Medical devices, drug names and even pharmaceutical companies themselves, once the domain of an incomprehensible collection of consonants fit only for the mouths of classics professors and Nobel laureates, are taking on monikers that are more consumer friendly.

"It has become a bigger issue as they have begun marketing directly to consumers," said Manning. "It used to be you sell it to the doctors, and the doctors, who knew best, sold it to the patients. Now the patients walk in and tell the doctors what they want."

Indeed they do. According to a 2001 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 30 percent of Americans have asked their doctors about a drug they saw advertised on television. Of those, 44 percent received a prescription. Put another way, the report found that one in eight people who saw a commercial for a drug ended up with a prescription for it.

"We've seen a clear evolution in terms of companies seeking to develop brands which speak the patient's language as much as the prescriber's language," said Rebecca Robins, global marketing director and co-author of "Brand Medicine: The Role of Branding in the Pharmaceutical Industry." "The name, as the one enduring element of the brand, has come to be considered, therefore, as a lot more than the development of 'a trademark.'"

So, why not just go with names like "Cancerbegone" or "Super­loverocket­fuel?"

That's where the U.S. Food and Drug Administration comes in to the picture. The agency reviews names, looking to eliminate confusion in the pharmacy and suggestions of unproven effects. It nixes about one in three proposed names, brand experts said.

"They are trying to get as close to crossing over that line as they can and still get FDA approval," said James Dettore, president and CEO of Brand Institute Inc., a brand identity consultancy. "You couldn't name it "Allergy Free, "Allergy Cure" or "No Longer Sneezing," but they can name it Claritin, which implies it allows you to be clear headed."

Bill Soller, executive director of the Center for Consumer Self Care within the school of pharmacy at the University of California, San Francisco, said in a nation of consumers, drug names affect the choices people make. He thinks a name can contribute to a patient's belief in the efficacy of drug and help cause them to comply with instructions for its use.

"We are a nation of consumers, and we have that virtually in every aspect of our life, in terms of how we choose products," he said. "No one's really looked at the psychosocial aspects of how truly important this is to therapy. I don't think it's hugely important, but it is a component."

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