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6 Challenges to Brand Naming in Pharma

What’s in a name? When you work in branding, the answer is everything. A branded name is an essential element of identity. It’s usually the first thing that customers see or notice and, typically, it’s how they remember a company or product. It’s the start of their brand experience and is crucial for cultivating trust and loyalty. Traditionally, healthcare has focused its brand names around functional features and not attempted to reach audiences on an emotional level. Interbrand research shows that this is a missed opportunity; brand can affect the bottom line and drive profit, premium, and preference. So, why is the critical process of naming so challenging in healthcare?

1) Trademark development is a key issue for new brands in the healthcare space. As with consumer brands, a name must have legal viability. When we begin the brand naming process, most clients start by telling us what they would like the brand to communicate. Our team then constructs hundreds of names that convey that idea either through specific combinations of letters, metaphors, or stylistic attributes. As trademarks continue to proliferate, it is harder to find white space around a specific letter string/communication (especially if it is inspired by a functional feature that isn’t spectacularly innovative or groundbreaking).

2) Equally difficult is acquiring a website domain. Securing a .com for your brand, essential in today’s increasingly digital world, can be incredibly challenging. As the digital arena expands, so does global reach.

3) It’s essential to test the linguistics of any brand name against different global markets to ensure what you are saying in one language doesn’t mean something negative or misleading in another language.

4) Even after passing these tests, names go up against a tough audience: internal stakeholders. Many people involved in evaluating and decision making around a new brand name are not familiar with the challenges a potential trademark must overcome and do not understand how valuable a viable name candidate truly is. Typically, they have strong, subjective, and sometimes emotional, opinions about what their brand should communicate and are surprised when they don’t see it articulated as expected in a name.

5) Unlike most consumer industries, the healthcare industry faces an additional, distinct set of challenges when it comes to brand name development. If the name is for a drug, implant, and, occasionally, a medical device product, regulatory authorities must approve it. Not only are there different regulatory authorities in different markets—making global branding particularly challenging—but each has an individual set of criteria to evaluate and approve the name. Regulatory authorities look at many aspects of a potential brand name, with their main concern focusing around safety.

Remember the last time you got a prescription at the doctor’s office? Could you read the written prescription from your physician? Regulators require that healthcare names not sound like or look like another product name to minimize confusion and pharmacist or physician error. That’s why names for the same condition, such as depression, are as varied as Prozac, Zoloft, and Wellbutrin. Additionally, the name cannot directly communicate a health and wellness claim or non-functional benefit. So we can hint at attributes—pro- active-prozac, loft-lift-zoloft—but not be overt about benefits; no one will ever really be able to brand an antidepressant called “happy pills,” even if we use the term colloquially.

6) Once a name passes the trademark tests and surpassed regulatory hurdles (if necessary), the brand name still has obstacles ahead. Healthcare marketers need a name that speaks to a variety of audiences, whether it is a product name or corporate name. Communication pieces need to interact very differently with patients versus physicians versus insurance companies. Something you would say in the consumer world that is inherently understood as positive may be interpreted as negative in the context of healthcare. Take Jet Blue, for example. This is a great name that immediately communicates speed (monosyllabic), action (jet), and safety/serenity (blue skies). However if the word “blue” were used for a medical product, it may communicate depression, coldness, or even death (think: code blue).

When considering how difficult it is to brand an entity within the healthcare category, it makes sense that our industry has traditionally focused its names on functionality. This has resulted in a lot of scientific healthcare brands that don’t tap into the emotions of their customers. When brands are unable to build a relationship with customers beyond a functional feature, they may not experience long-term success. A brand’s longevity requires a connection that goes beyond how something works–tapping into emotions and creating a relationship with end-users. This opportunity is huge and exciting, but it must be approached using industry expertise and category insights in order to build a meaningful connection with customers that stands the test of time.


Creative Director, Identity