After 25+ years in the highly competitive world of OTC medicines, I’ve learned some things about naming products. One thing I’ve learned is you have to understand the “Goliaths” of the category and zig when they zag.

Many OTC categories are dominated by brands that have been building equity for 50+ years. Brands like TUMS® (75+ years) and Bayer® Aspirin (100+ years) are Goliaths because they are well positioned, satisfy consumer needs, and have had consistent marketing support. Should you study these historical successes? You bet. People buy these brands for a reason. Find it. Exploit it if you can with a name of your own.

Another Goliath is the constant influx of new Rx-To-OTC switches. Brands like Advil® (introduced 1984), Claritin® (1993) and Prilosec® OTC (2003) are “switch Goliaths” that turned categories upside down.

Sometimes the switch carries the prescription name into the OTC market (e.g., Claritin®) and sometimes it does not (e.g., Advil® for the generic ibuprofen). If the entire Rx franchise is switching (as in Claritin®), then the Rx name is usable…and who would walk away from the years of Rx equity building by changing the name? Sometimes a portion of the Rx brand will remain Rx which means the OTC version must have a different name or carry a suffix to differentiate the OTC brand from the Rx brand (e.g., Prilosec® OTC). Sometimes a product is launched through a licensing deal where the manufacturer wants to retain the Rx name or perhaps the Rx name has “baggage” associated with it that the new company wants to avoid (as was the case for alli® instead of Xenical® the Rx name). The FDA will still have its say on the name, but the company has more flexibility to name the product.

“Switch Goliaths” have extremely deep pockets and intensely loyal customers. The switch brings new users into the category from the Rx franchise and they do not pass GO…they go straight to the ingredient/brand that they know and love. This process short circuits the decision-making process and really gives unfair advantage from a naming perspective.

A final Goliath is the huge investment that pharmaceutical companies make in the consumer marketplace for their Rx products. Prilosec® (the Rx product) outspent the entire OTC stomach remedy category by 2 to 1. These 900 pound Goliaths are dancing on a daily basis, and you’ve got to be aware of their dance steps lest you get squashed like a bug.

How can David beat Goliath? You really have to understand the market dynamics in your particular category and formulate a naming strategy based on what you learn.

If your category has strong historical brands, you can leverage this and make your new brand look like the next generation. The best example of this was the introduction of Advil®, where a timeline easily showed that first there was aspirin, then Tylenol®, and now there is Advil®, Advanced Medicine for Pain™. A modern, contemporary name might be the ticket to success.

If you are competing against numerous Rx products in your category, you cannot out gun them, but you can emulate them. I once developed the name “Provia” for an OTC GI product. It sounded so much like a product with an Rx heritage that many consumers swore the product was already on the market and it was a terrific product because it used to be Rx. It was memorable because it had strong Rx cues.

OTC medicines are a difficult naming category with numerous Goliaths. You can win by remembering that “when underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win” according to political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft, who concluded that Davids beat Goliaths 71.5% of the time, as noted by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker last month.

Mark Prus, NameFlashSM