Pharmaceutical Naming and IP Protection

Jason Wang

Naming Team, Shanghai

Over the years, China's pharmaceutical market has experienced rapid growth, accounting for 11% of the global pharmaceutical market. China is now the world's second largest pharmaceutical market, trailing only after the United States.

Drug names are a crucial component of any pharmaceutical quality assurance (QA) testing. Having a legally compliable name is also a basic requirement in the standardization of a drug for mass usage. Yet many seem to overlook how important a drug name is to the overall sales of the product as well as the equity of the pharmaceutical company. In this article, we will examine how proper pharmaceutical naming can work to enhance brand protection and marketing performance of drug products. With a thoughtful drug name, pharmaceutical brands can easily stand out in the increasingly competitive market today.

Chemical name, generic name and brand name

In general, a listed drug is mainly composed of a chemical name, generic name and brand name:

Chemical names are the scientific names of the drug based on their molecular structures. They are typically very long and complex thus are mainly used by researchers and are usually not displayed on labels, instructions, or packages of the drugs. Generally, consumers, physicians, and pharmacists are better served by referring to the drugs' generic and brand names.

Generic names, also known as International Non-proprietary Names (INN), are the official names of drugs throughout their lifetime. These are adapted from the chemical name, and are shorter and easier to pronounce. They can help the general public identify the right drug and avoid the risk of relevant parties issuing the wrong medication. Each INN is a unique, globally recognized public property. They are not exclusive thus can’t be applied as trademarks. In China, generic drug names follow national naming standards set by the Ministry of Health of the People's Republic of China (MOH). They are based on the INN and formulated in conjunction with specific circumstances.

Brand names are names created by pharmaceutical companies and given to their drug products. They mainly serve to help customers with product identification. Different from chemical and generic names, brand names are not compulsory. Some manufacturers simply use the drug’s chemical, generic names or the name of manufacturer as the brand name when launching a new drug. This is the reason why there are many drugs on the market that have identical names and can’t be differentiated from one another. In situations like these, drugs can only be told apart by using other obscure information. This not only creates confusion for patients who don’t often have sufficient knowledge about the drugs, but also increase the chance of doctors making mistakes.

From a marketing, branding and IP protection perspective, having a unique brand name can help build brand differentiation, form a healthier market competition environment, and maximize the brand equity protection for drug manufacturers. A memorable brand name can also help with enhancing the image of the company and build the reputation of its drug products.

In the next section, we will introduce the naming methodologies used in the creation of pharmaceutical names and identify the potential challenges companies will face during the process. 

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Naming Methodologies and Challenges of Pharmaceutical Drug Naming

Due to the importance of brand names to drug products, pharmaceutical companies usually conduct extensive research as well as adopt multiple research approaches as an effort to evaluate a potential drug name. This includes:

  • Doctors’ handwriting samples on proposed brand names, to check for resemblances to other drug names;
  • How doctors with various regional accents pronounce or mispronounce the names, to see if any of them might be confused with other drugs during a telephone call to the pharmacy.

Comparatively, drug brand names in China follows a strict regulation system. According to China’s State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA), the name “shall only be composed of Chinese characters permitted by the Trademark Law.” The character or the general term “shall not be used if it is expanding or suggesting the curative effect of the drug; indicating the treatment site; similar in pronunciation or form to the generic name of a drug.”

In general, a western drug will first confirm its alphabetic name before it is translated into Chinese. There are 2 main Chinese naming typologies for such drugs:

  • Pure phonetic transliteration (ex: 阿瓦斯汀 Avastin, 科素亚-Cozaar);
  • Transliteration with meaningful connotation (ex: 络活喜-Norvasc, 顺尔宁-Singulair, 爱必妥-Erbitux).

Most drug brand names in Chinese have the following characteristics:

  • Simple and easy to pronounce, mostly combined with 2-4 commonly used Chinese characters with less strokes (ex: 格列卫-Gleevec,全可利-Tracleer).
  • Carry positive connotation. Commonly used Chinese characters include 乐“happy” (西乐葆-Celebrex), 吉“promising” (多吉美-Nexavar), and 宁“peaceful” (顺尔宁-Singulair) etc.

There are also some typical naming features that can be observed in alphabetic brand names:

  • Indicator implication: Prefixes of brand names often act as the signifier of the context in which the drug should be used. For example Diaformin (dia-diabetes) is used for for diabetes treatment and Bonefos (-bone) acts on bones.
  • Pharmaceutics characteristics implication: Suffixes can also indicate the characteristics of the drug. Calcichew D3 (-chew), signifying the drug’s chewable attribute.
  • Letters like “X” and “Z” are commonly used, since they convey speed and strength, implying a strong drug efficacy while also showcasing the tonality of innovation and technology. Examples include Nexium, Xanax, Zoloft and Zofran etc.

Trademark Registration for a Brand Name

Legally, trademark registration is an optional step for drug brand names. Having the name trademarked, however, can provide the maximum protection for the brand and prevent any copycats from the pharmaceutical or adjacent industries in stealing your identity:

  • For IP protection, once a trademark is registered, the registrant is granted an exclusive right of use the trademark; The registrant of the trademark prevents other traders from using his brand without his consent, avoiding any potential lawsuits and risks.
  • In terms of sales and communication, trademark is an intangible asset of an enterprise, and the carrier of credibility.

For example, “丁桂” is a class 5 (tablets, patches, ointments) trademark registered by Yabao Pharmaceutical Group in 2002. In August 2005, Yabao Group filed a complaint to Wuhan Industry and Commerce Bureau saying that Wuhan Sanchu Group used the similar name "丁桂宝" in the packaging of its drug products. This behavior infringes the exclusive right of the registered trademark "丁桂". In January 2006, the Trademark Office ruled that the above-described behavior of Sanchu Group was classified as infringement.

In this case, Yabao Group managed to maximize its IP and brand equity protection through striving for trademark rights. In this way, legal fights and losses on manpower, material resources and finance are avoided.

In recent years, the economic environment has become more crowded and complex. One of the manifestations is the cross-category characteristics of enterprise management. At the same time, with the emergence of new business forms such as the APP and e-commerce, many companies choose not to confine themselves to the protection of the core trademark categories, but to obtain greater protection by expanding the radius of their trademark registrations. Based on this, we suggest manufacturers to take the following actions:

  • Try to cover industry-relevant trademark classes. Besides Class 5 (Pharmaceutical) and 44 (Medical service), we also recommend Class 1 (Chemicals), 3 (Cleaning products), 10 (Medical instruments) and 42 (Scientific research) for drug brand names. Class 9 (Computer, telecommunication) is a popular category for many industries over the years and is also suggested for registration
  • Register trademarks similar to the core name for registration. This measure aims to prevent copycats. For example, in addition to “星巴克”, Starbucks also registered “巴克星”, “辛巴客”, “星八客” etc. in Class 30 as defensive trademarks for protection purposes.

Naming of Proprietary Chinese Medicine (pCm)

PCms do not have brand names. They usually communicate through generic names. There is a great diversity of pCm generic names: Liuwei Dihuang Pills (六味地黄丸), Chuanbei Pipa Syrups (川贝枇杷糖浆), Jianweixiaoshi tablets (健胃消食片), Anshen Bunao Liquid (安神补脑液), Tongfengding Capsule (痛风定胶囊) etc. This leads to the situation where different Chinese medicine available on the market can often be confused with each other. Therefore, naming for pCm calls for further name standardization, including the below:

  • According to the naming principle of pCm generic name recently issued by China Food and Drug Administration, the name generally contains no more than 8 characters; the dosage form should be mentioned, and placed after the name.
  • The new regulations also emphasize that, exaggeration, self-praise and impractical expressions should not be used; place and enterprise name shall not be adopted etc. For example, 消癌 literally means "eliminating cancer", which seriously exaggerates the drug’s actual efficacy thus is deemed as misleading to consumers. In this situation, some proprietary Chinese medicine brands face the possibility of being renamed.
  • PCm generic names often refer to their corresponding side effects (眩晕宁片: 眩晕-dizziness), main components (银杏叶片: 银杏叶-ginkgo biloba), or both of them (人参健脾丸: 人参-ginseng; 健脾: pancreas strengthening)

Understanding the Importance of Pharmaceutical Naming

Thanks to the innovation and development of medical science & technology and the general public’s growing health awareness, the Chinese pharmaceutical industry is expected to maintain sustained growth in the next few years. It is more important now to come up with uniform naming standard, which sets the foundation of proper drug usage and distribution. Pharmaceutical manufacturers should understand the effects of drug naming as well as IP protection have on their businesses. A good drug name can determine the image of companies and their products and should be a crucial part of a pharmaceutical company’s marketing management. 

From insights to action: read it in our monthly newsletter. →      

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