Better Naming Through Chemistry

Prescription drug names are usually made-up words because of trademark and FDA regulatory concerns, but there is another reason: Gravitas (fear), the real or perceived need to have a name appear "serious sounding."

Historically, every business sector begins life with a tightly-drawn nomenclature box, departure from which is seen as foolhardy. Eventually, however, a company ventures outside of the comfort zone, is hugely rewarded, and the rest follow. Well-known examples of industry-changing company names include Virgin (Airline industry), Fannie Mae (Financial), Apple (Computers/Technology) and Yahoo (Web). The breakout usually happens when the messaging gets stale and ineffectual and/or when negative baggage in an industry reaches critical mass.

The medical / biotech / pharmaceutical space is one of the last holdouts, but two sides of the triangle have recently given way.

Medical Devices Break Out

A couple of years ago the medical device manufacturer Medtronic introduced a vacuum cardiac stabilizer called "Octopus," an evocative, intuitive name that referenced the arms and suction elements of the device. The announcement of the name brought laughter and derisive comments from competitors in the industry. At the time, Guidant's competitive product was called "Axius," a typical Greek/Latinate morphemic-constructed name common to surgical equipment.

The Octopus name began showing up in lectures and in quotes from surgeons in articles, even when the Guidant Axius was the product being referenced. In just a few short years, Octopus has become the default name for all similar cardiac stabilizers, much like FedEx, Kleenex, Xerox, etc. became synonymous with their products. Without employing a huge marketing budget, Medtronic captured the hearts and minds of their target audience and made it impossible for anyone to steal them back, no matter how many advertising dollars were thrown at the problem. The long-standing wisdom (fear) that a surgical device needed a "serious sounding" name to appeal to surgeons had been laid to waste. Medtronic has proven that, contrary to popular belief, surgeons are human. Shocking.

Guidant was not only determined not to let this happen again, they wanted a name that would be a category-killer for the new product they were soon to release. Our assignment was to come up with a name that would achieve common, default usage. A name that would, pardon the pun, spread virally. And thus "Heartstring" was born, and did just that.

The Heartstring is a coiled string that is used in place of a clamp when making a graft to the aorta during heart surgery. Besides being descriptive, we chose Heartstring because it has a secondary emotional context, and because when the procedure is complete the surgeon simply "tugs on the Heartstring" to uncoil and remove it from the aorta. Since the name had three points of connectivity with the audience, we knew the chances were great of it attaining the Holy Grail of default usage. And indeed it has.

Biopharma Heals Thyself

The second leg of the triangle, Biotech / Pharmaceutical company names, began to quiver recently with the advent of names like Guava, Nektar, Blue Heron, Cypress and Orchid. These companies are using their names to distance themselves from the negative baggage that exists in their industry in the same way that Merck and ADM are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to assure the public that they are not cold and uncaring, and are working with nature rather than against it, a la Frankenfood.

It's only a matter of time until the names of drugs begin to reflect the understanding that the right name can be a cost-effective, market dominating force.

While names like Prozac and Vicadin are interchangeable, as are Claritin and Zoloft, other names like Viagra and Wellbutrin have begun to shift the trend with abstractly inferential benefit imagery. Look for this trend to accelerate as every combination of "X" and "Z" names saturate the marketplace with sound-alike morphemic mouthfuls.

Further reading:

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