Bamlanivimab and the challenge of brand names


Bamlanivimab and the challenge of brand names

Brand naming is always a difficult job, even more so for pharmaceutical drugs, but marketers should remember to put the naming carriage behind the positioning horse.

Spare a thought for the poor marketing bastards at Eli Lilly. The rest of the company is celebrating its new Covid-19 treatment but they must have their heads in their hands.

Eli Lilly’s new star product is not a vaccine but rather a treatment for Covid-19. It is an antibody that patients take after they contract the virus and which, according to new medical data, can significantly minimise the effects of the disease on infected patients.

The product gained emergency approval on Monday from a US Government that has already agreed to pay Lilly $375m for an initial order of 300,000 doses. With 200,000 Americans likely to become infected every day as we approach Christmas and the global infection rate also climbing, it’s clear why Lilly’s new product is good news for them and good news for the world in general.

So why should we be feeling sorry for Eli Lilly’s marketers right now? Surely, they are sitting on almost impregnable sales success? Well, they are. But the name of this new wonder drug is causing quite a stir because Eli Lilly has named it bamlanivimab.


Take your time. I will wait for you at the next paragraph. You might need several attempts.

Is it the chorus line from a The Four Season’s B-side? A delicious Serbo-Croat desert served with cream? An ancient grappling move used in the sport kabaddi? No, it’s one of the most important products of 2020. Which prompts the question: why would Eli Lilly choose such a tongue twisting, five-syllable monster?

Perhaps there is some founder logic behind the name; maybe it was professors Soon Bamlani and Sangeeta Vimab who made the original discovery and the new product honours these creators. But no. Or perhaps the antibody from which the new drug is based is known as Bamlanivi-4. Again, no. Marketers might assume that something so important cannot carry such a stupid name by accident. They are already postulating on Twitter that bamlanivimab is a deliberately stupid name created for clever reasons.

This happens a lot in marketing. Instead of adhering to the principle of Occam’s razor (which says the explanation that requires the smallest number of assumptions is usually correct) we bestow every shit marketing decision with some ridiculous, fictional rationale that makes it counter-intuitively brilliant.

The lesson for marketers is that you should take your time with the brand name. Names are a tactical thing. Get your strategy done first.

Ads appear shit but are designated subliminally effective. A product is not badly made it was deliberately designed to stop working after two weeks to drive repurchase. A company cocked up its new logo in order to relaunch the old one with a flourish.

In the case of bamlanivimab, social media has already suggested that the name is deliberately bad to force the world’s media to ignore the product name and refer directly to Eli Lilly, thus bestowing all the societal and monetary glory on the corporation behind the product. Again, not true.

Branding a pharmaceutical drug

The real story is much more complex and interesting. Medicine is a serious business in which mislabelling or mis-prescribing the wrong product has potentially devastating consequences. The business of naming pharma products therefore takes on a level of importance rarely seen in the traditional marketing world.

Pharmaceutical drugs have multiple names – usually at least three. The first name is the scientific name used during the testing phase. This is usually based on the compound or antibody from which the new product is made. LY-CoV555 was bamlanivimab’s original name signifying that it was invented by Eli Lilly (the LY bit) as one of the potential treatments for Covid-19 (the CoV555 bit).

Once a drug is approved however, it needs a generic name. And that is what bamlanivimab is. Despite the global titters about the name, there is a very clear logic behind its formulation, it’s just not one that most marketers will be familiar with.

For starters, the generic name must be made up of a prefix and a suffix. The prefix must contain at least two syllables to help distinguish it from other generic names. It must also avoid letters than could cause mispronunciation and confusion in countries where the Roman alphabet is less familiar, so Y, H, K, J and W are usually avoided.

The suffix must reflect the class of drug that the new product belongs to. The ‘mab’ in bamlanivimab’s name identifies it as a monoclonal antibody. Finally, the generic name also has to be globally approved because patients, doctors and diseases have the annoying habit of moving around.

But the generic naming rules do not stop there. In direct counter to how marketers name products, the generic name must also avoid any link to its manufacturer or any benefit-based superlatives that might promote its efficacy. Marketers might want to call the drug Lillikillicovid but such things are impossible, alas.

The real challenge for bamlanivimab, and all other nascent brands seeking a clear and effective name, is to complete targeting and positioning before you name the product.

To make things even harder, the new name must not only avoid any reference to patient benefits but also to its basic usage too. It cannot even reference its initial intended medical application in the name. That’s because many drugs end up being far more useful for accidental indications that were never part of their original intended usage. Viagra, or sildenafil to give its generic name, was developed as a blood pressure drug until an alternative side-effect emerged, ahem, during testing.

bamlanivimab’s name is a product of this process. And to be fair, Eli Lilly did not even make the final decision to pick that name. Instead, it likely submitted a raft of proposed names and the FDA, the US government body in charge of drugs in America, made the final selection and then communicated it back to Eli Lilly.

I’ve been in the room with clients when the final name choice is communicated back to the marketing team and can confirm that, within the four walls of a large multinational corporation, there can be much gnashing of teeth at this point. I am prepared to wager quite a large sum of money that bamlanivimab was not the name at the top of Eli Lilly’s marketing wish list. In fact, I will wager it was on page six or seven of the list of suggestions.

But there is good news ahead for Eli Lilly and its long-suffering marketers. Most drugs have a third name to sit alongside their scientific and generic references. And this one is the brand name.

The strategy of brand names

This last stage of naming is much more strategic and closer to what we marketers usually engage in. Pharma brand names can be conceived, communicated and protected much like any other brand name. It’s a crucial step for drug companies because brand names do still matter.

Turning alprazolam into Xanax or fluoxetine into Prozac was a crucial step in their eventual success. The approval process for bamlanivimab has been so swift that Eli Lilly’s marketing team are probably still working on the brand name they want to register for their hot new product.

Like every other brand-naming challenge there are a bunch of key concerns to consider as the naming process begins. First and most obviously, you want to avoid the hassles of having to name your brand differently across the world because you chose a name you could not own in a particular territory or because it means ‘boobs’ or ‘arse hair’ in the language of one of your target countries.

But the real challenge for bamlanivimab, and all other nascent brands seeking a clear and effective name, is to complete targeting and positioning before you name the product. It’s certainly possible to take a brand that has already been named and launch it successfully. But I would estimate that 30% of the branding job is done for you if you can get to the positioning stage and then choose a name that reflects and connotes the position you want to convey to target customers.

The greatest ever bit of brand naming came from Red Bee Media, which helped UKTV launch its channel UKTV G2 as ‘Dave’. The channel’s target segment were 16- to 34-year-old blokes who no longer got to see their mates in the pub and missed the camaraderie and banter.

The channel was positioned as a substitute for this social time with old football games and dodgy 80s sitcoms making up the programming. And it was named Dave because “everybody knows a bloke called Dave” and it can be your late-night friend when your missus and the kids have gone to bed and you urgently need a beer and a repeat of Tottenham versus Liverpool in the 1982 Milk Cup.

The minute you flick through Sky’s programme listings and see Dave sitting there you know what it is and what it can give you. That is the beauty of naming after positioning has been completed. And I know this because 99% of my marketing life has been spent the other way round: trying to market a brand that was already (badly) named by gremlins in Switzerland or nameless senior executives in California. It might say a calming, relaxing experience on our positioning template but when the brand name you are working with is Krontex Alpha life is never going to be easy.

I say 99% of my life because there was one, just one, glorious moment when I was able to put the naming carriage behind the positioning horse. I’d been working with a product development team for seven (count them, seven) years on a new medical product launch in Japan. Our parent company was American and we had convinced them that the US name for the product was vaguely inappropriate in Japanese. This was an outright lie but essential to our naming ambitions and my Japanese team just about maintained the subterfuge – although getting Japanese executives to lie is all but impossible in all but the most fraught of circumstances.

Eventually we got the green light to pursue a Japanese name. We already had the positioning completed and needed something nocturnal, restful and restorative. We went with the name of a Japanese fairy tale princess for exactly those traits and I remember the day we found out the name had been accepted. Utter joy. I can’t say any more, except that after a lifetime trying and failing to convince consumers to slip into a warm bath of Krontex Alpha it was a heavenly experience and one that resulted in commercial success.

The lesson for marketers, and for that small gaggle of Eli Lilly people currently holed up in a windowless meeting room in New Jersey staring at a long list of alternatives, is that you should take your time with the brand name. Names are a tactical thing. Get your strategy done first. And then, only with target and position clearly articulated, start the naming adventure. Oh, and watch out for arse hair too.