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Wednesday, October 7, 1998 Published at 12:40 GMT 13:40 UK


Name your own wonderdrug

Medicine Scrabble - doesn't leave many high-scoring letters

What's in a name? Well, quite a lot if you are trying to get the world to sit up and take notice of your stunning new invention.

After all, for manufacturers of drugs like Prozac and Viagra, a memorable name could be the difference between people queueing for your pills and them being left on the shelf.

Barely a week goes by nowadays without there being new advances in medical science, each one of which needs its own catchy name.

[ image: Viagra - its name, image and makers now famous around the world]
Viagra - its name, image and makers now famous around the world
How about Xenical, the drug designed to help the very fat lose weight? Or Seroxat, the drug to help social phobics lose their inhibitions without using the more traditional Dutch Courage?

One thing they all have in common is that, if the rules allowed names to be used, they would be high scoring words in Scrabble.

Sean Brierley, author of The Advertising Handbook, said: "It's true, there are a lot of xs and zs in there."

Space Age

In the past, he said, there would have been some link between a drug's name and what it did. But modern names instead have something of the space age.

[ image:  ]
"What's become more important is the technology behind a drug, rather than its properties. Technological image drives a lot nowadays - just look at the move for more megabytes and gigabytes.

"People want to feel they are buying into the new technological image and that they are in the forefront, leading it."

If proof were needed of this, one need look no further than Xenical. Its chemical name is the much less attractive, less memorable, and less hi-tech-sounding orlistat.

It does not take a huge leap of imagination to think of 1960s futuristic comics looking forward to the Millennium, speculating about all the sorts of drugs which would be available to stop people getting fat or being shy, and using names just like Xenical and Seroxat.

Growth area

In fact, if anything, Seroxat is quite an old-fashioned name, according to one of the experts of product-naming - a sector of the economy which barely existed 25 years ago.

Tom Blackett of Interbrand - the company which dreamt up the names Hobnobs, Prozac, Zenica, Metro, Maestro and Montego among many others - said although Seroxat was an excellent name, it was nevertheless bucking the trend.

The name echoes the drug's effect on serotonin in the brain, but the fashion was for names which bore no relation to a drug's chemical make-up or its effects, he said.

[ image: Prozac became such a famous name it was included in the 1998 New Oxford English Dictionary]
Prozac became such a famous name it was included in the 1998 New Oxford English Dictionary
"This is partly because these sort of names are very difficult to protect. You wouldn't see a drug called Relief-O because trademark law says you shouldn't have a monopoly on something like the word relief," he said.

But he added that when they are looking for a name for a new product, they wanted something short - which causes problems in itself.

"All the short names for every five or six letter words have already been registered. But also we like short names because they are easier to memorise.

"We like plosive names, like Prozac, because they lodge themselves in your mind."

[ image: Xenical capsules come off the production line]
Xenical capsules come off the production line
Although another example of an Interbrand name showed a different approach. The drug Zophren, which is used to treat sickness for people who have undergone chemotherapy, was designed to sound comforting, he said.

One of the things naming companies have to consider - apart from whether the name has indecent meanings in other languages - is who the product is aimed at. Seroxat, as a prescription only drug, is naturally aimed at doctors.

"The average consumer won't know serotonin from a tube of Smarties, but clearly for doctors the name works as a short cut for all sorts of marketing," he said.

But at the same time, manufacturers could not go too far the other way in choosing abstract names for drugs, said Sean Brierley.

Lifestyle choice

So-called 'lifestyle' names, such as Orange for a mobile phone or Goldfish for a credit card, would be completely inappropriate for drugs.

But the impact names had on products' success was overrated, he thought. Viagra and Prozac would have been huge worldwide hits whatever they had been called because of media interest.

"One of them is to do with sex, which every media outlet is interested in and will go and on about. The other is to do with a generational interest, the whole depression thing - and it also has a sex angle to it as well," he said.

Either way, the stakes are high - with sales worth hundreds of millions of pounds all around the world, it would be a brave company which trusted the Scrabble bag.

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