Healthcare Marketing: Naming Your Healthcare Product

5 min read

What Goes Into Naming a Healthcare Product? 

Pull up a chair and let's dive into what goes into naming healthcare products. From Lipitor to Nexium and Mirena to Acuvue, more goes into naming a product than you would think. While some musical artists report they came up with a hit song in a 20-minute lunch break (we're looking at you Beyoncé), we can tell you that healthcare product naming doesn't roll off the tongue quite so easily.

First of all, many companies have to reach beyond their internal team and hire professional naming agencies. Yes, there is such a thing. Often times this is the best approach as outside experts are able to see the medical device or drug from a different perspective and can bring in the creative mojo needed to brand your "baby" with what it will be called for eternity. Their M.O.: honing in on words that will attract billions in sales for executives and offer customers a hint of what it does. For the process that leads to a single name, the cost of obtaining the right name varies, but some big pharma companies have been known to pay anywhere from $50,000 upwards to $2.5 million! 

The process usually begins with brainstorming sessions, researching word meanings and several packs of whiteboard markers before narrowing it down to that final list. Making that final list isn't easy as fewer than 10% of names generated will be available for trademarking upon initial submission. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office receives 5,000 requests per week so you can imagine the number of rejections. The phrases, "back to the drawing board" or "sorry, that's been taken" are often heard.

"Naming products is like trying to run a marathon when you've walked across the room once." —Nancy Friedman, Professional Namer who named Medtronic's "Sentrant".

Sentrant is a device used to introduce any of a number of instruments into the body, usually through a small vessel. A blend of sentry and entrant, it combines the concepts of protection and entry. As an invented word, it suggests innovation.

So what should you name your device? Here are some examples of familiar medical devices or drugs and the etymology of their names:

You want your product name to be easily remembered and not create confusion. This is especially true outside the United States (OUS) as your name may mean one thing domestically but internationally, it can have a different connotation. Likewise, you do not want a name that creates negative emotion or that is hard to pronounce. This also can be tricky when finding a name that works globally as certain letter combinations are hard to pronounce in other languages or may not even exist such as "h," "j," "w," "k" and "th." And finally, it is important to remember that certain letters have power; branding specialists proclaim that "z," "k," "c," "p," "t," and "g" sound strong and reliable, whereas "l," "r," and "s" are calming and relaxing.

"When a person hears a name for the first time it is never neutral. It always carries with it some feelings or emotional/subliminal reactions." —Jim Singer, CEO of branding company Namebase and came up with the name of Prozac.

Name confusion is a real thing and can be very dangerous. Approximately 12.5% of medication errors are attributed to name confusion. The FDA reports that in the United States, medication errors are estimated to cause at least one death every day and injure approximately 1.3 million people annually. The Institution for Safe Medication Practices keeps a list of commonly confused drug names here. Are you surprised that Viagra is often confused with Allegra? Or Paxil with Plavix?

Here's some interesting facts about naming your healthcare product:


More on Naming Pharmaceuticals

Every FDA-approved drug has three names: a chemical name, a generic name and the proprietary name.

A drug's chemical name is usually only used by scientists and the manufacturer so patients often are not aware of it. It is typically a long, cumbersome name that specifies its molecular structure. For instance, the chemical name for Vicodin is 4,5α-epoxy-3-methoxy-17-methylmorphinan-6-one tartrate (1:1) hydrate (2:5). It's a mouthful we're guessing you haven't heard on the news or trips to your local pharmacy.

A drug's generic name is selected by the United States Adopted Names Council (USANC). The USANC reviews and selects a generic name based on a variety of conditions including patient safety, its usefulness to healthcare providers, absence of conflicts with existing names and ease of pronunciation as well as many other factors. It is important to note that both chemical names and generic names are not subject to proprietary trademark rights. For reference, hydrocodone is the generic name for Vicodin, ibuprofen a generic name for Advil and acetaminophen is the generic name for Tylenol.

And finally, the proprietary name is typically the trademark used by the first manufacturer of the drug. There are more than 30,000 drugs registered as trademarks in the United States. An example of a proprietary drug name is Nexium.

One major difference between naming a medical device and naming pharmaceuticals is that because of the safety issues and complexities of drug naming that we've discussed, proprietary names must be reviewed by the FDA and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) while medical devices are not held to the same scrutiny of the dual approval. The process for medical device naming is not evaluated with as much scrutiny because many of the risks associated with look-alike and sound-alike drug names are not applicable.

And Now for a Little Game We Like to Call, "Betcha Didn't Know. . ."

In closing, the old saying, "What's in a name?" is pretty much answered with "Everything!" when it comes to naming your healthcare product.

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