Paul Domenet: Pfizer’s vaccine may save the world from Covid – but what should we call it?

To receive good news in 2020 is something to be celebrated. Even if it is a small step, it’s a short shot to counteract the ongoing face-grinding misery parade that has accompanied us through this year. But we have that news: there is promising work being done on a vaccine for Covid-19. Pfizer and BioNTech have summoned the first effective coronavirus vaccine that can prevent more than 90% of people getting Covid-19. Not only is this a good thing for science, it is also a good thing for hope which had been dwindling like loo roll supplies in supermarkets at the start of the first lock down.

A Covid vaccine should be celebrated, research scientists carried on the shoulders of fans, t-shirts could bear their faces and the vaccine will doubtless be a globally recognisable brand..or will it?

Sky News

The naming convention for vaccines is to call it something it combats. The jab in winter? The flu jab. The same for Typhoid, Rabies, Anthrax, Measles, you name it, we call the vaccine the name of the ailment and although that’s neat shorthand as an indicator, it’s not much of a celebration.

In America, there is a convention of having a generic name for a drug that scientists recognise and a brand name to sell it to you and me. So the trade name for rabies jabs – RabAvert, or Imovax – depending on which pharma company makes it. Hep A? – Vaqta, Anthrax? BioThrax (which sounds pretty Metal), Cholera – Vachora.

Pfizer itself has a clear guide on how it names its brands – it checks it’s not already been used, that it doesn’t mean something rude in another language, it avoids letters like H and J that might not translate and often looks at names that reflect the original ailment or have a nice tonal point that is reassuring.

We work in branding – imagine naming something that could help save generations from an untimely death or catastrophic illness. Do these words really sum up the euphoria of finding that solution?

It takes skill, imagination and research to find the right name for something that can change the future for millions of people. It needs to be a suitable name that would be on the lips of everyone on the planet – so the formula for generic names that can be approved by the United States Adopted Names (USAN) council, or the WHO’s INN Program is not really going to be a headline maker. Something we can all take hope from, and will spark imagination – the brand name needs to be a hit.

Internet overlords Google managed to do this with their parent company. Calling yourself Alphabet – a word that describes the underpinnings of written language since ancient Greek times – is a feat of confidence and a reflection that Google puts itself into world culture at such a fundamental level. The same was attempted with BBC Sounds – its audio app – generic enough to encompass anything and pointing to the broadcaster being a purveyor of pretty much anything you might put in your ears.

To some, these naming conventions are bold – they’re a move onwards from the disposable sounding names of the dotcom era where words were disemboweled and probably destined to vanish as they are sold on to Facebook. To name a lifesaving and life-changing medical advance – this also needs to be bold. It needs to be solid and reassuring and tell us that things are going to be ok – that is what we need now, in terms of medicine and messaging.

Maybe the Covid vaccine can do that simply with an ancient name – following the steps of Alphabet and co. What about Pandora? She opened the box and released untold horrors into the world – disease and pestilence, probably social media trolls and phishing scams too – but what we forget is the one thing that remained in the box was Hope. Pandora was left holding hope and we have a lot of that resting upon the creation of a new vaccine.

The bottom line is you could really call it anything you like. Call it Bob, call it Angela, call it crawfish – it won’t answer you and I am willing to bet that so long as it is not inappropriate – nobody will care what you call the Covid-19 vaccine, it’s what it does that makes the real difference.

But we still need to be ready to mark that moment, to have a name for a turning point in time when we were able to exhale again and think of future plans outside of our homes, where there are hugs and meetings and all of the things we miss.

Naming things is hard. It’s hard because it is important, especially with products that change the world. Of course, a lot of what I am saying here is tongue-in-cheek, but this could genuinely be the most celebrated brand launch of the century. What a joy it would be to get the brief to name this vaccine. Maybe if it is our saviour – we could be humble and just call it Brian.

Paul Domenet is communications creative director of Free The Birds.

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