Phonological fluency and pharma brand naming
Phonological fluency and pharma brand naming: would a rose and a rwze seem equally sweet?
What is phonological fluency?
Human judgment reflects not only the content of our thoughts but also the metacognitive experience of processing those thoughts. (Wamble 2018)
The construct of fluency can refer to any cognitive task described along a continuum from effortless to highly effortful, with a corresponding metacognitive experience that can be described along a continuum from fluent to disfluent. (Wamble 2018)
In the particular case of language, what is described as linguistic fluency comprises several domains. The subjective ease with which words are processed, for example, is termed lexical fluency, while the subjective ease of their pronunciation is termed phonological fluency. (Okuhara et al. 2017)
Words that are easy to pronounce are considered phonologically fluent; those that are difficult, phonologically disfluent.
Why are many pharma brand names phonologically disfluent?
Quote from Wamble 2018
Within the US pharmaceutical industry, manufacturers are wedged between the tried-and-true brand naming strategies that extant marketing literature prescribes and the stringent boundaries that are imposed by regulatory bodies responsible for approving pharmaceutical brand names.
For consumer products, it is usually possible to adopt evidence-based approaches to constructing brand names, in which achieving maximum marketing effectiveness can be the paramount concern. Pharmaceutical manufacturers do not have this luxury. Brand naming in pharma is tightly regulated and the resulting constraints and intricacies mean there has been little consensus regarding what is effective, leading to a variety of pharmaceutical brand naming tactics and to what are regarded in many cases as complicated and difficult to pronounce brand names. (Wamble 2018)
This problem appears to be one that is becoming increasingly acute. Generally speaking, disfluent brand names seem to be more common today than they were in the past (See Table below):
FDA approved NMEs
What are the potential implications of disfluency in pharma brand names?
One of the consistent findings from studies of lexical fluency over the past decade or so is that phonologically fluent words generate more favourable evaluations than those that are phonologically disfluent. (Okuhara et al. 2017)
This raises the question of how the disfluency exhibited by many pharma brand names might affect the perceptions and behaviour of patients, in markets permitting direct-to-consumer advertising, and of physicians.
When it comes to patients, the evidence is mixed.
A 2009 study conducted in healthy subjects showed that people perceive fluently processed stimuli as being safer than those for which processing is disfluent. (Song and Schwarz 2009) Consistent with this, several subsequent studies conducted in patients found that drugs with complex names are perceived as more hazardous than those with simple drug names and that this negatively influences willingness to buy. (Dohle and Siegrist 2014) These include a study which found that people were likely to choose a higher dosage for themselves and for a child if a drug had a fluent versus a disfluent name, on the basis that the former would be ‘safer’. (Dohle and Montoya 2017)
In contrast to these findings, David Wamble’s study among patients with rheumatoid arthritis showed that the difficulty of pronouncing pharmaceutical brand names had no effect on evaluations of the product’s perceived risk or the willingness of patients to request the medication from a prescribing physician. (Wamble 2018)
How about prescribers?
Unfortunately, when it comes to prescribers, little is known about how pharmaceutical brand name fluency may or may not be a factor in their decision-making. One would expect, or at least like to think, that in their role as a prescriber, a healthcare professional would behave in a way that is more consistent with a normative perspective in which a product evaluated by drawing on relevant accessible knowledge about the respective content domain, rather than being influenced by metacognitive experience. But being human, it is possible at least that prescribers will not always behave as purely rational actors.
My guess is that the greatest problem around pharma brand naming will be the increasingly difficult task of constructing new names in the first place, as novel agents are approved in greater and greater numbers and the limits are reached of what is both lexically possible and compliant with regulations.
Interested in the world of brand naming?
Check out the Brand Institutes Healthcare Experience page, containing a long list of brand names (4445 at the time of writing), link below.
- Wamble, D, The Role of Brand Name Fluency: A Pharmaceutical Marketing Perspective. 2018. Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 27. https://egrove.olemiss.edu/etd/27
- Okuhara, T et al. Designing persuasive health materials using processing fluency: a literature review. BMC Res Notes. 2017;10(1):198. Published 2017 Jun 8. doi:10.1186/s13104-017-2524-x
- Song, H, Schwarz, N. If it’s difficult to pronounce, it must be risky: Fluency, familiarity, and risk perception. Psychological Science 2009;20(2), 135-138.
- Dohle, S, Siegrist M. Fluency of pharmaceutical drug names predicts perceived hazardousness, assumed side effects and willingness to buy. J Health Psychol. 2014 Oct;19(10):1241-9
- Dohle S, Montoya AK. The dark side of fluency: Fluent names increase drug dosing. Psychology: Applied 2017; 23(3), 231–239
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