Pharmaceutical branding: “building the perfect beast”

Each word has an entire volume of history attached to it.  Where does it come from?  How was it used in other places, other times?  Tracing the ancestry of a word through etymology reveals ancient understandings of the need for and role of such a word in a culture and tracks philosophical shifts over time on a societal level [exhibit A: compare the ancient, etymological meaning of “psychiatry” to current uses]. 

A word with no history, springing up “full-grown” and pregnant with meaning, is an anomaly with a specific function: it serves, not a culture attaching meaning to its life-world, but the sole purposes of its creator.  It delivers a very specific message — cut out of context, simplified, compelling — from its master to all who invoke its power. 


We’re talking about branding.

Pharmaceutical companies have inserted new words into the language of mental wellness, words with no etymological ancestors.  Words that are designed, above all else, to sell. 

What effect does this have our culture’s conversation about mental health?


The perfect name = “the perfect beast”

Pharmaceutical companies start working with branding consultants as early as 3 years out, searching for that perfect name, the one that will:

find a fresh way into the hearts and minds of customers … redefine and own the conversation… ignite the passions of customers… propel itself through the world on its own, becoming a no-cost, self-sustaining PR vehicle.

(from pharmaceutical branding consultant IGOR International’s handbook: “Building the Perfect Beast; The IGOR Naming Guide”).  

WHOA.  Let’s process for a moment:  that “hearts and minds” phrase is a clear reference to LBJ’s counter-insurgency efforts in the Vietnam War (though it, too, has an interesting history which long predates American imperial activities).  “Beast,” too, is an interesting word choice – slightly apocalyptic to my ears – though an appropriate description of a self-propelled, insentient thing doing the PR bidding of its masters.

Costly research has shown that:

  • hard letters with an edge (P,T, and K) convey effectiveness
  • X is perceived as scientific
  • L,R, and S are calming
  • Z means speed

Additionally, the name is most effective if it contains some pre-existing elements of meaning; then there is less of a need to create a new meaning through marketing and advertising.

All this points towards the fact that drug companies are marketing directly to consumers, and they’re not doing it from an evidence-based point of view (ie, presenting information from clinical trials proving the effectiveness of the drug).  It’s all about symbolism, emotion, and the sub-conscious.

Dettore and Piergrossi point to the brand Invega for a Johnson & Johnson anti-psychotic.

The word Vega, the brightest star in the constellation Lyra, is imbedded in it. Any imagery related to the stars or space carries a positive connotation.

It almost offers the patient hope through the name,” Piergrossi said.

(from this recent news article; emphasis added)

So let’s have a look at a few common drug names.  What kind of beast was this drug intended to be?  How is it meant to propel itself directly into our hearts and minds?  AND, how do the emotions and symbolism invoked compare to the actual evidence surrounding the effectiveness of the drug?


Pro – Positive, affirmative.  Additionally, we have the “p” sound, which conveys “effectiveness.”

Zac – “speed.”

Given that research has shown that antidepressants are only marginally (at best) more effective than placebo, and usually take about 3-5 weeks to begin “working,” this name is a bit misleading. 

May I suggest TRIAPLACEBOFIRST instead?


SER – the “s” sound is soothing, and this seems to imply “serenity.” 

QUEL – calm, quell. 

Despite the calming sound of its name, research has shown that acute akathisia (maddening restless energy which can cause pacing, twitching, and even violence) is a common side effect of Seroquel. 

Perhaps the name JUMPOUTTAURSKIN would better convey this “side effect”/main effect of the drug?

Anyone else out there have insight into the name of a particular “beast” (ie, pharmaceutical brand)?  A suggestion for contextualizing this Minerva-esque vocablulary? Visit the original post here to make comment.

Language change is a powerful force, a way to re-define and reframe.  It can work for you.

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