Truly successful companies are always copied and emulated by others attempting to carve out a bit of market share for themselves. As a result, the bigger companies do their best to hold onto the market, often through marketing and advertising efforts, much of which has to do with branding. Appropriate branding activities create an image in the public consciousness consistent with the message the parent company is trying to send. However, there’s a flip side to aggressive branding, and that comes in the form of a genericized trademark.
For example, when someone asks for a band-aid, people generally take that to mean, “I need an adhesive bandage,” and not, “I need a Band-Aid brand adhesive bandage.” Asking for a xerox of a document does not mean, “Please find a Xerox brand copier to duplicate this paper.” The term “xerox” has become synonymous with producing copies. In fact, the brand name has become so generic in our lexicon so that “xeroxing” is synonymous with “photocopying,” despite the fact that most copiers are not made by Xerox. There are literally hundreds of examples of terms people think of as product descriptors or categories that are so much a part of American cultural language that most people don’t even know the terms are (or once were) trademarked names: Zipper, Frisbee, Scotch Tape, Saran Wrap, Ping Pong, Trampoline, Crock-Pot, Dumpster.
The big problem arises when a brand becomes synonymous with a general product or service, so much so that the trademarked name becomes overused and goes from a “brand” to a description or definition. This causes a litany of legal trademark issues that can destroy a company. This phenomenon, referred to as “genericide,” (the death of a brand, essentially) happens most often when there is no generic, alternate term for the product or service being described. Ultimately, other companies may end up being legally able to use a previously trademarked term as a generic term.
For example, “escalator” was originally used by Otis, the elevator manufacturer. However, as there was no other term for the invention other than “escalator,” (it wasn’t Otis’ Escalator brand moving staircase, for example), other companies were legally allowed to use the term “escalator,” effectively committing genericide on “Escalator” as a brand name. Suddenly, the time, effort, and financial resources Otis had put into branding their “Escalator” were lost. Other companies could sell their versions under the same name, and the brand’s impact was greatly diminished.
For this reason, many companies now brand themselves a bit differently, using both their trademarked product name and a product descriptor together as a differentiator. For example, Kleenex now markets their “Kleenex facial tissue,” fighting the trend of people asking for “a kleenex,” instead of “a tissue.” The old Band-Aid jingle was, “I am stuck on Band-Aids, ‘cause Band-Aid’s stuck on me!” In recent years, however, the jingle has been updated: “I am stuck on Band-Aid brand, ‘cause Band-Aid’s stuck on me!”
One of the most recognizable trademarks fighting genericization at the moment is Google, a name long synonymous with its functions as a search engine. For instance, one might read this article and say, “I need to google ‘trademark genericization.’ I don’t think ‘genericization’ is even a word.” However, that doesn’t necessarily mean the searcher is planning to use the Google search engine. She may choose to use Yahoo! or Bing. In tackling this issue, Google works to consistently keep their brand fresh, and they discourage the use of “google” as an improper noun or verb. One of Google’s favorite ways of reminding people Google is a brand, not an activity, is by keeping their logo prominent and frequently manipulating it for a day or two at a time with fun additions or themes. They also push the word “search” consistently, as in, “Perform a Google search” instead of “Google that.” If they did not assertively protect their brand this way, Google could have ultimately become a true synonym for web searching, and any number of other search engines could use the term “google” as a verb in their own marketing materials.
Preventing trademark genericization is an important part of a company’s branding efforts, and it requires the highest level of marketing and advertising expertise as well as occasional legal advice from intellectual property attorneys and trademark specialists. If you’re marketing your company as a service or your invention as its own unique product, you may need to ask yourself, “What are we doing to protect our trademark?”