The Intricate Art of Naming Drugs: Behind the Scenes with the “Chief Namer”

22 November 2023

Meet Scott Piergrossi, the mastermind behind the names of over 75% of new drugs worldwide.

In the vast landscape of pharmaceuticals, where countless drugs are developed and marketed each year, one crucial aspect often goes unnoticed—the art of naming these drugs. Scott Piergrossi, the “chief namer” at the Brand Institute, a leading branding agency, is the mastermind behind the names of more than 75% of all new drugs approved worldwide. From blockbuster brand names like Prozac to the latest COVID-19 vaccines, Piergrossi and his team have the unique task of creating names that not only capture the essence of the drug but also comply with strict regulations. In this article, we delve into the intriguing world of drug naming, exploring the process, rules, and creativity involved.



The Rigidity of Generic Drug Names

When it comes to generic drug names, there are two gatekeepers—the American Medical Association and the World Health Organization. These organizations enforce a rigid process that demands names to consist of two parts. The first part is a stem that indicates the drug’s function, such as “-vir” for antivirals or “-estr” for estrogen-containing compounds. The second part is a prefix, allowing manufacturers some creative freedom within certain boundaries. However, there are strict rules to follow. Manufacturers cannot reference their own names, make claims, or use letters that could cause pronunciation issues in different languages. The banned letters include Y, H, K, J, and W.

The Complex World of Brand Names

Brand name drugs, on the other hand, are overseen by public health agencies in each country. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) plays a crucial role in approving brand names. The goal is to establish a globally recognized name, even though all letters are allowed in brand names. Piergrossi’s team, however, still avoids using letters banned in the generic process. When creating a brand name, the team begins by understanding the manufacturer’s desired message, representation, or sound. They generate an impressive list of 2,500 potential names, which is then narrowed down through various stages of evaluation, including trademark considerations, potential for confusion with other drug names, and extensive market research to appeal to physicians and patients.

Unveiling the Stories Behind the Names

While Piergrossi couldn’t disclose specific drug names due to client confidentiality, he did shed light on some notable examples. He described Prozac, the groundbreaking antidepressant, as “the big bang” of pharmaceutical naming. The name holds no inherent meaning but acts as a blank canvas, allowing individuals to project their own interpretations. The “pro” prefix conveys professionalism and strength, while the “zac” suffix is catchy and easy to pronounce. Piergrossi’s team also worked on the name Jeuveau, a dermal filler that combats wrinkles. The French-inspired name, derived from “jeune” (young) and “nouveau” (new), evokes a sense of rejuvenation and youthfulness. Another recent project was Opill, an over-the-counter birth control pill. Piergrossi praised its simplicity, connection to “the pill,” and easy recall value.

Behind the Scenes of Drug Naming

The process of naming drugs involves extensive research, creativity, and adherence to regulations. Piergrossi emphasized that drug names are not an afterthought but the result of months of intensive work. From brainstorming thousands of potential names to conducting market research and ensuring compliance with trademark laws, every step is meticulously executed. The final name must capture the essence of the drug, resonate with healthcare professionals and patients, and avoid any potential confusion.

Conclusion: The intricate art of naming drugs is a vital yet often overlooked aspect of the pharmaceutical industry. Scott Piergrossi and his team at the Brand Institute play a pivotal role in shaping the identities of new drugs, ensuring that their names reflect their purpose and resonate with the intended audience. From adhering to strict regulations to sparking creativity, the process of drug naming is a delicate balance of science and art. So, the next time you come across a drug name, remember the meticulous thought and effort that went into its creation, and appreciate the hidden stories behind the syllables.

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