Quest for the Perfect Drug Name


What’s in a name? Plenty, if you ask Albert Cialis, a retired accountant in southern England. When he discovered that a new impotence drug from Eli Lilly & Co. shared his surname, he was mortified. If the drug became well-known, wouldn’t being Mr. Cialis be the equivalent of having the name “Mr. Viagra?”

“It’s an unfortunate coincidence,” said Nicole Hebert, a spokeswoman for Eli Lilly, which makes Cialis, a soon-to-be rival to the blockbuster drug Viagra. Lilly is considering Cialis’ request to rename the drug, she said. The brand name Cialis was derived from the “ciel,” the French word for sky, and is a play on the idea of “the sky’s the limit.” The drug is expected to debut in more than 50 countries next year.

While it’s doubtful that Lilly would rename a drug this late in the game, the Cialis incident raises the question: Just how do pharmaceutical companies come up with the names for their new therapies?


Product names must not only be unique but capture the essence of the product in a few short syllables, drug-marketing experts say. “Names must be easy to remember and easy to say,” said Daniel E. Plaisance, director of the pharmaceutical branding group at Addison Whitney in Charlotte, N.C.

The trend is for names that relate closely to the drug’s function or that evoke quality-of-life images that resonate with consumers. “Older drug names are derived from Latin and medical roots, while the newer ones are patient-friendly and have more personality,” said James Dettore, chief executive of Brand Institute, a Miami firm that has developed names for the cholesterol drug Lipitor and Relenza, an anti-flu medication.

Lipitor, for instance, was derived from the word lipids, the organic compounds that the drug controls. Relenza hints at relief and reliability, with a nod to the illness it combats, influenza. Similarly, Allegra, an allergy medication, combines the root word, allergy, with a softer suffix, “gra,” to create a name with a soothing symmetry. Xenical, an anti-obesity drug, practically spells out what it does: X’s out calories.

Other popular names “don’t have a functional tie to the drug,” Plaisance said. Viagra, for instance, evokes feelings of vigor, and virility, and an association with the force of Niagara Falls. Then there’s Vantin, a new antibiotic whose name suggests benefit or advantage.

“Every little sound carries with it a lot of symbolism,” said Jim Singer, president and creative director of NameBase/Medibrand in Cardiff-by-the-Sea.

After a drug company settles on a name, the firms check with doctors, nurses and pharmacists to determine if the name might be confused with other drugs. They typically hire linguists to make sure the name has no negative or obscene meanings or connotations in other languages. Lawyers check global trademark registries to prevent copyright problems.


The final step is getting clearance from the Food and Drug Administration, which rejects about a third of the roughly 300 drug name proposals submitted to the regulatory agency each year, said Jerry Phillips, associate director of the FDA’s Office of Drug Safety. Common reasons for rejecting a new drug’s name are that it is too similar to another drug or that it overstates a product’s effectiveness, Phillips said.