The World’s Best-Selling Pharmaceuticals Don’t Need Trademarks


As a result of COVID, the stock market fell on its sword, then it zoomed up. During COVID, unemployment skyrocketed, only to leave us with a tight labor market. Panic consumption brought us scarcity of basic products. To battle COVID, the government pumped unimaginable sums of money into consumer’s hands, spiking demand for everything from housing to everyday necessities. In these times of crisis, did we also learn that the world of trademarks was turned upside down?

How else can you describe the fact that the world’s highest-grossing pharmaceuticals had – in essence – no trademarks? Along comes COVID, and the world’s best-selling drugs are known only by the names of manufacturers who produce them.

Be honest. Has anyone ever asked you whether you got Spikevax or Comirnaty? No. They asked, “which one did you get – Pfizer or Moderna?” (Johnson & Johnson, which was recently suspended, is also only known by its manufacturer’s name.) Until recently, people did not even know that the vaccines had brand names.

The brands might just as well have been called “The Brown” and “The Beige.” Did the absence of trademarks help promote adoption for the COVID vaccines? Maybe the generic approach to vaccine names helped public health officials promote widespread inoculation in a “take what you can get” mode. There was no brand competition between vaccine providers to create consumer demand for one brand over another. If the vaccines had been sold with different brand names, it would have been more difficult for the public to view them as interchangeable, and this perception was vital during the early days of vaccine scarcity. 

The Moderna and Pfizer trademarks did not provide many elements of goodwill to boost their products’ sales. A trademark is designed to convey quality. Didn’t the government want to downplay any quality questions so that it encouraged the public to consider all vaccines as equally desirable? Yes, the speed at which these were developed severely impacted the usual brand name development. It is complicated, especially when you are talking about pharmaceuticals and the very long approval processes for drug names, and for trademarks in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Most of us in the public were passive recipients of one brand or the other. We had little input into which product we were having injected into our bodies. Honestly, especially in the early days of vaccination, many people were happy to have an opportunity to get either one. From early on, people heard there were differences in effectiveness; there were a few stories of people holding out for a particular brand. Health care providers and institutions which administered the vaccines were anxious to snatch up all the supplies they could. In the world of a pandemic, many key trademark differences in the drugs (efficacy, longevity, and side effects), took a way-back seat to availability.  

But how are these manufacturers going to protect their products if they do not have a name other than “the Pfizer/Moderna COVID vaccine?” these two vaccines – by far – are the world’s most administered drugs, and largest revenue-producing drugs. And they do not need their own trademarks? The two vaccines are estimated to have combined total 2021 revenue of about $54 billion. Throw in J&J and you have another $2 billion. The next highest grossing drug last year was Humira, at $20 billion. No one answers the question “which arthritis drug are you taking?” with “oh, the AbbVie” (its maker). After Humira, you would have to add pharmaceutical sales leader numbers 2 through 5 (Eliquis, Revlimid, Keytruda and Enbrel) to match the combined sales of the COVID vaccines, which again, are not “the Pfizer” and “the Moderna.” They have names, people!

Generally, people do not seem to have any real brand awareness for flu vaccines. No active branding of these non-consumer-facing products emphasize usual features of price, availability, safety, and specification of what type of flu the vaccination treats. Will that be the pattern for COVID? There is much at stake.

Before COVID, try convincing any pharmaceutical CEO that their greatest revenue producing products did not need brand names. Someday, economists will try to sort out how inflation was tied to COVID spending and how much supply chain shortages should be blamed on workers unable to go to work. Meanwhile, trademark lawyers and B-school people will struggle to understand how the biggest drug launches in history had no brand names. Commoditization is the antithesis of trademarks. Trademark rights are a bulwark against confusion. They aid consumers in purchasing, and provide efficiency in purchasing a known quantity, time after time. If product demand is supercharged and the consumer is seeking a type of product, not a brand, then the value of a legal right in a trademark races downhill. 

This is not the first crisis that reduced the importance of branded goods. During the energy crises of 1973 and 1979, gasoline was rationed. Formerly brand-loyal customers would not hold out for Exxon versus Shell versus Arco petroleum. The most sought-after brand was any brand which was available.

The magnitude of the COVID non-branding stands in a light of its own.

In the meantime, if COVID is still with us in the endemic state that many are predicting, will these vaccines continue to be the go-to treatments in one form or another? If so, will Spikevax or Comirnaty become household brands advertised to consumers – the Coke and Pepsi of a new generation? We shall see. But right now, we know that new products generated category-smashing results, all without new trademarks.

MORE FROM FORBESWhy ‘Comirnaty’ Is The New Name For Pfizer Covid-19 Vaccines, ‘Spikevax’ For Moderna

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