Who really came up with the brand name for Allergan’s new eye drop for farsightedness?

Dual press statements, some of which are less than clear, cast a fog over which experts deserve credit for creating the name.

Vuity, a new formulation of an older ophthalmic drug, hit the market this month. As the first FDA-approved eye drop for age-related blurry near vision (a.k.a. presbyopia), Vuity’s October approval and subsequent buzzy launch did not go unnoticed by the mainstream press. A host of stories across digital and traditional channels touted the drop’s lifestyle-changing effects.

Some of the biggest firms in the business stepped up to claim credit for the drug’s equally catchy name. Brand Institute, stalwarts in the industry with myriad biopharma drug names under their belts, issued a statement about its “successful partnership with Allergan” in naming Vuity. A week later, a press release from rival firm Catchword Branding directly laid claim to having created the medication’s moniker and took credit for naming the technology used to deliver it, dubbed “pHast.”

So whose name is it, anyway? To some extent, the list of those responsible for conceiving a drug name is as long as the number of firms involved in the process, which can be extensive.

It’s not unusual for multiple agencies to work on the brand-name development for a drug, explained Brand Institute president, creative Scott Piergrossi. Nor is it uncommon for more than one to put out congratulatory statements. 

Asked about his firm’s involvement, Piergrossi replied, “We use the word ‘partnership’ because, oftentimes, the name will be born from the creative process, and that includes both Brand Institute creative development as well as input from the client side. The Vuity name was a result of our standard creative process.”

As for the company’s December 9 press release, which stops short of saying it was the one responsible for naming Vuity, Piergrossi said, “We don’t claim ownership of a name. It’s our standard way of saying the name comes out of a process.”

The firm appears to be committed to that communication style, even when its creative bona fides are undisputed. Take another one of the firm’s statements, the December 2020 announcement that it played a “role” in naming Pfizer/BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine Comirnaty. 

While the language in that announcement is similarly boilerplate, that case may differ in one important respect: Brand Institute is unanimously credited with having come up with the Comirnaty name, as well as that of Spikevax, Moderna’s COVID-19 shot.

Vuity

That’s not the case with Vuity. Did Catchword give birth to Vuity’s name? “We did, 100%,” reported Catchword co-founder Laurel Sutton. 

“We just want to get credit as a naming company,” she added. “People only hire us if they can see what names we’ve created as a guide to what we do.” 

Were the drug name to show up on two different agency portfolios, it would create confusion in the minds of prospective clients. The lack of clarity has already started to play out publicly: Media coverage in the wake of Brand Institute’s Vuity press release implied that it was indeed claiming creative credit. 

Which is why Sutton, Catchword’s co-founder and the one who led the agency’s Vuity work, wants to clear the air. 

She said Allergan approached it for branding work on the eye drop in September 2020. The agency suggested two rounds of names before “Vuity” was selected, subject to legal screening and stringent FDA testing. 

That’s when Brand Institute, which had been involved since the beginning, came back in and did the regulatory testing and issued recommendations as to which names would best serve the client, Sutton claimed. 

Asked about his firm’s specific contribution, Piergrossi said it was “a full Brand Institute project,” from name-generation to checking and testing. “Unfortunately, you can’t just come up with a perfect name and say, ‘That’s the one,’” he explained. “A variety of names and name types survive.”

The fact that multiple naming firms were brought in reflects the difficulty of conjuring new monikers for prescription drugs, a process which has become increasingly complex. To be successful, a drug name must make it through a gauntlet of regulatory and trademark hurdles, not to mention clear the bar in terms of meaning and memorability. Among other strict FDA qualifications, a drug name may not over-promise on its benefit.  

But as the FDA approves more small-molecule and biologic drugs – 48 so far in 2021 – the amount of available names continues to shrink, meaning linguistic pros have been forced to wander further afield in search of the perfect appellation. 

The firms working on Vuity faced a similar set of hurdles, with some caveats. Although it’s a prescription product, Vuity treats a lifestyle condition. Presbyopia is a degenerative condition affecting roughly 128 million Americans. Allergan is hoping many of them reach for Vuity drops instead of reading glasses to see close-up. 

The brand name needed to come across as friendly enough to be advertised directly to consumers. That meant an “over-the-counter feel,” as opposed to the consonant clusters and preponderance of X’s and Z’s that often characterize drugs marketed to doctors. 

“‘Vuity’ is not a real word but sounds like one because it has a prefix and a suffix,” Sutton noted.

The prefix “vu” relates to vision and the suffix “ity” is meant to invoke acuity – acute vision, things one can see clearly. “It’s not weird or multisyllabic but flows like a real word and sounds elegant and premium,” she added.

The latter aspect was important, with a 30-day supply of the drug costing about $80. And while the drug’s target audience is adults ages 40 to 55 years old, the drug can’t restore them to the vision of a 25-year-old. One drop on each eye provides sharper vision for six to 10 hours, according to the company.

So the name could not suggest a cure for farsightedness, either. “A lot of names were rejected because they implied a cure,” Sutton recalled. She noted that the process took about three months and entailed screening 200 to 300 names to get down to five to 10 that looked safe from an availability standpoint. 

That was “the toughest part of this,” Sutton continued. “A lot of beautiful, elegant names fell by the wayside because someone used them already.”

By its own account, the firm seems to have threaded the needle. 

“As a gentle coinage, it is both familiar and intriguing,” Catchword wrote in a blog post about its creative process for naming Vuity. Besides being easy to spell and say (no small feat in pharmaceutical naming) it works equally well for English-speaking and international audiences.

Sutton said she has been involved in cases where multiple agencies independently came up with the same name for a brand or product, although the clients in those cases were not in the healthcare vertical. “That can happen, but that was not the situation this time,” she stressed.

Brand Institute’s carefully worded press language did not misrepresent its naming work. Nevertheless, using the same external language to convey that work, whether it be the sole creative force or merely a collaborator, may have led to confusion in this case. Striving for clarity around who did what work, whether communicating in one’s own press releases or with the media (and within the bounds of prevailing restrictions), will ultimately benefit all agencies and aid clients in choosing future marketing partners.

Allergan, which might be able to answer the question one way or the other, did not respond to a request for comment.