The key to #FierceMadness victory for AZ and Ionis' Wainua? Unique sounds and 'phonetic appeal,' per the Brand Institute

Wainua’s victory in this year’s Fierce Madness drug name tournament may seem at first glance like a product of subliminal messaging—you can’t spell Wainua without w-i-n, after all—but there’s plenty more at play in the name of AstraZeneca and Ionis Pharmaceuticals’ rare disease drug that may have helped it clinch the championship.

Wainua, which was approved in the final days of last year, is a ligand-conjugated antisense oligonucleotide drug designed to treat polyneuropathy in adults with hereditary transthyretin-mediated amyloidosis (ATTRv-PN), a rare disease that AstraZeneca and Ionis estimate affects around 40,000 people globally.

The drug’s name—pronounced way-NOO-ah—came about as part of a “lengthy, thoughtful process” between the two companies, Rachel Payne, global commercial vice president of the ATTR team within AstraZeneca’s cardiovascular, renal and metabolism business, told Fierce Pharma Marketing via email. They ultimately landed on Wainua, she said, which “reflects its meaning of ‘a new way.’”

“ATTR amyloidosis is a systemic, progressive and fatal disease that often goes undiagnosed. Because signs and symptoms of ATTR amyloidosis are commonly misattributed to other conditions, patients often face a difficult and complex journey towards getting the help they need,” Payne said. “We wanted our brand name to evoke a feeling of hope, representing a new way forward in the treatment of ATTR amyloidosis that will meaningfully impact patient lives.”

Many Fierce Madness voters picked up on those implications in the name, with one writing in a comment alongside their final vote that Wainua’s pronunciation evoked both “a new way” and “renewal.” Payne said AstraZeneca was “excited” that voters detected the name’s underlying meaning, “playing back what we were striving to convey—a name with both emotion and driven purpose,” and added that the Big Pharma was “so honored” by Wainua’s ultimate tournament win.

In addition to that overall sense of optimism, Wainua’s win may also be attributed to the unusual—but still euphonic—letters and sounds it’s made of, according to Scott Piergrossi, president of creative for the drug-naming heavyweight Brand Institute.

When coming up with a new name, drugmakers and partners like the Brand Institute must look at the “whitespace opportunity,” meaning new combinations of letters that won’t look or sound like an existing drug name, Piergrossi said in an interview with Fierce Pharma Marketing.

Wainua achieves that in spades: For one, W is the second least-used first letter in FDA-approved names. “The first letter is the most important in a brand name because that starts the name, and it’s the most important from a soundalike, lookalike standpoint,” Piergrossi said. He added that when companies are “open minded” to less common letters, they’ll often end up with particularly likable and marketable new names—“but as consumers and as humans, oftentimes we shy away from things that we’re not familiar with … so there’s a balancing act here of exploring the unknown, but also making it feel familiar and likable.”

From there, both “wai” and “nua” are letter sequences that are completely unique among FDA-approved names. All of that “has contributed to being a very distinguishable and unique name,” Piergrossi said.

Those elements added up to a win for Wainua against its challenger in the final, Eli Lilly’s Mounjaro, which Piergrossi noted is not only “distinctive and memorable” in its own right but has also “captured the imagination of the public” and was likely boosted in the bracket by its broad consumer awareness.

In comparison to Wainua’s softer and “more flowing” sounds, Mounjaro is “on the more powerful-sounding side,” he said—though both shy away from the popular tactic of packing new drug names with quirky uses of hard consonants like Qs, Vs and Xs.

Both of the finalists “are unique in that they both have phonetic appeal, in that they are easy to pronounce and that they are appealing when pronounced,” Piergrossi said, adding, “I think that the way in which those names capture the associated or intended imagery and ideas make the names also very memorable and likable.”

Zooming out beyond the finalists, Piergrossi pinpointed a handful of other trends among the drug names that performed well in the Fierce Madness bracket. One with “a lot of opportunity,” he said, is the practice of doubling up on a vowel or consonant: Daxxify, Rystiggo, Rezzayo and Ojjaara all made it to the Sweet 16 round. Somewhat less successful in the tournament were names with “breakaway consonants” like Xdemvy, Vtama and Ztalmy, all of which lost in the first round, though Piergrossi said that naming strategy “consistently finds a lot of regulatory and trademark opportunity, ownability and uniqueness.”

In other upsets, Piergrossi said he was surprised to see Paxlovid’s run end in the Elite 8 because of its awareness among consumers—though he said the Brand Institute was ultimately OK with the loss because it “loves” both Paxlovid and its vanquisher Beyfortus.

Another surprise was Sotyktu’s second-round loss, especially because of the “pretty big ad campaign” behind the drug, per Piergrossi. Veozah, meanwhile, also fell in the second round, despite the fact that the silent H is “something that we’re seeing take off, because it provides a visual differentiation.”

Finally, he offered shoutouts to Skyclarys, with its “very elegant, very aspirational image,” and Camzyos, which combines a piece of the drug’s nonproprietary name with a “very bold and innovative” suffix—both of which went down early in matchups with crowd favorites Paxlovid and Mounjaro, respectively.