The Two Sides of OTC Drug Name Creation

Naming an OTC drug product is the rare instance in pharma naming when pre- and post-launch planning are so closely intertwined, which can pose some challenges. But it can also some uniquely interesting opportunities. What do you need to keep in mind when working on this type of product?


At a high level, brand name development falls into two main categories: pharmaceutical/healthcare, and consumer-facing. And for the most part, these two sides of the spectrum have their own set of guidelines and techniques for creation, staying in their respective lanes while every now and then crossing over to utilize a specific characteristic of the other.

However, there is one industry segment in which the spectrum is shrunk and substantial aspects are pulled from both sides: over-the-counter drugs. These products live in the world where they are both required to achieve pharmaceutical regulatory approval while also facing the need to succeed by consumer metrics. This can bring forth confusion, but there are some key areas that help navigate the landscape when creating a brand name for over-the-counter products.

First, a primer on the guiding aspects of both naming categories. Consumer name creation is driven by post-launch factors – trademark and copyright availability, consumer reactions to the name and how it will be received in marketing and in stores. On the other side, pharmaceutical name creation exists mainly in the pre-launch world, putting its focus on gaining approval by the respective regulatory agencies, which focus on name safety (which we’ll touch on later in this article) and how the name will react to use by medical professionals.

One of the ways OTC brand naming begins to blur the lines is also one of the earlier creative process steps: identifying the type of name that will be utilized. Byproducts of the slightly more lenient threshold for regulatory approval, the types of names considered are often not confined to complex pharmaceutical-esque letters strings created to ensure safety when tested against other prescription drugs. While not completely open, the realm of name possibilities is decidedly more expansive when it comes to what names can be considered.

These types include “coined” or newly created words such as Mucinex or Dulcolax, which look to give a suggestion of the product benefits in a unique word construction. Then there are hybrids, which are combinations of real words that form a new name, and often express a specific characteristic or an overt benefit of the product, such as Gas-X or IcyHot. While the pharmaceutical regulatory agencies often discourage names that communicate expected responses, with the less-stringent guidelines for OTC names, the main hurdles of these word types would be from a trademark perspective.

Often, a larger obstacle to consider for OTC names is securing a trademark, since these names tend to be based on concepts or themes that are very commonly used – be sure to include a heavier focus on trademark availability during the name validation phase of market research. Is there potential for confusion with existing brands? It the name too similar to another brand with which the consumers are familiar? This line of research is known as look-alike and sound-alike testing, and while it is important for regulatory considerations like prescription errors, it is also helpful in guiding the trademark clearance process.

Additionally, the research performed is not exclusively focused on pre-launch drug name characteristics like look-alike and sound-alike or trademark clearance, but also takes a look toward consumer reaction and impact for the product post-launch. This research will help frame the marketing and advertising, along with identifying key areas of opportunity with the target consumer audience. In the end, the goal of this research is to identify and develop a comprehensive knowledge of how the name and the consumer will interact.

Why is the consumer considered a significant factor in the OTC name creation process? The reason highlights a key difference between this type of drug and a prescription product when a purchasing decision is being made. With an OTC drug, they are constantly competing for the attention and brand recognition of the consumer. Often found on the shelf, sitting alongside their competition, these products benefit most when they have a name that can connect with the consumer, communicating a clear message, driving home a key benefit or being one that is familiar and easy to say. In this aspect, the OTC name swings back toward consumer naming similarities.

This back-and-forth of OTC name creation necessitates a strong strategic focus, much like the Addison Whitney strategic naming process. This process, which is applied to all brand name creation projects we work on, provides pre-screening and other higher-level research to all name candidates, giving a more comprehensive and well-rounded perspective on potential names.

Strategic consumer research also works to identify the story behind the brand to help drive the name creation process. Not only does this encourage a smoother process for name creation and name candidate selection, but it also benefits the entirety of the brand. The strategic naming process doesn’t just create the name itself, but it works to craft a story behind the name, providing a “why” to the “what” of the new name.

With this story and rationale behind the name, OTC brands are also set up to incorporate additional brand development areas, such as visual branding and brand strategy, which tie back into benefiting the brand post-launch. Because, in addition to the brand name striking a chord with consumers, the logo and package design must stand out among the competition lining the shelves, which is then incorporated into potential positioning and messaging via brand strategy.

From the very first brainstorming session to the post-launch advertising campaign, OTC brands pull from both sides of the brand name categorical aisles, finding a niche right in the middle where their unique needs and regulations provide an opportunity for brand name development and brand creation to think outside the box – but also making sure to stay within a slightly larger box at the same time.

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