When a brand name becomes generic (and how you can prevent it)

Does anyone have a band-aid?

Where's the nearest laundromat?

Colloquial speech is a powerful force, especially when it comes to brand names. In both cases above, a registered trademark is being invoked, but most consumers aren't aware of it. "Band-Aid" is a registered trademark of Johnson & Johnson, and "Laundromat" was a trademarked name created by the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company in the 1930s.

So what's going on?

If you ask an attorney, she might call these genericized trademarks. If you talk to a linguist, he might explain "metonymy": when a part is used to refer to the whole. "Band-Aid" (the brand) is just one example of an adhesive bandage. The Band-Aid was invented in 1921 by a Johnson & Johnson employee and gained popularity over subsequent decades, making it a household name. Eventually "Band-Aid" came to mean any adhesive bandage, and the trademarked name was genericized. The same is true of "Laundromat," which now stands for any coin-operated laundry.

Metonymy has to happen before a trademarked name is genericized. Consumers take a top-of-mind example of a product and use it to refer to all similar products in the category. And metonymy is not limited to trademarked names. Consider the use of the term "nazi," a generic form of "Nazi," a member of the German fascist party under Adolf Hitler. Webster's dictionary provides this definition for "nazi": "one who is likened to a German Nazi: a harshly domineering, dictatorial, or intolerant person." This process of likening is metonymy at work.

It's human nature to make things simple. We use brand names as generic nouns because it's easier that way.

So what can you do to prevent your brand name from becoming generic? Unfortunately, it's not just a matter of making up a word. "Zipper," a name invented by the B. F. Goodrich Company for rubber overshoes, became associated with the shoes' closures, and the trademark acquired generic status.

Here's what you can do to keep genericide from happening to your brand name:

Use a generic descriptor

By pairing your trademarked name with a descriptive phrase, you can prevent it from becoming a generic noun. Consider "Jell-O® brand gelatin," where "brand gelatin" clearly differentiates name and generic term. By using this entire phrase consistently, Kraft Foods is able to prevent "Jell-O" from becoming genericized, at least in the legal sense.

Create usage standards

Establish guidelines for how your brand name is used, including where and how often its trademark designation (TM or ®) appears. This elevates its status in the minds of internal and external audiences and establishes a legal precedent of ownership. And never, ever use your trademarked name as a generic noun or verb. Even making it plural or possessive presents a risk.

Extend the meaning

This might seem counterintuitive, but the more different types of products a brand name represents, the less likely it is to become a generic term. Band-Aid did this by expanding its product family to include foot care products and antiseptic washes. Now the brand name Band-Aid represents more than just adhesive bandages. It is a brand standard within a category.

Reinforce the general term

When the brand name Xerox was becoming a generic noun ("make a xerox") and verb ("please xerox this document"), the Xerox Corporation launched an ongoing media campaign to reclaim their name and reinforce the general term "photocopy." (In spite of their best efforts, "xerox" has entered the Oxford English Dictionary as a commonly used verb.)

More current examples are Google, which has begun discouraging publications from using the generic expression "google" to refer to any Web-based search. And Tylenol, a brand owned by McNeil Consumer Healthcare, has embarked on an advertising campaign encouraging consumers to seek their product by name, drawing a distinction between it and generic acetaminophen.

Use it or lose it. As a trademark owner, you have to actively protect your trademarked name. That means using it consistently (according to the guidelines you've created) and protecting it against infringement. A trademark gains legal strength the more often it is used correctly in different contexts.

So the next time you leave a post-it reminding yourself to bring a thermos and your hacky sack on your camping trip, you're really leaving a sticky note about a vacuum flask and a footbag. And you'll understand the brand implications.

11 comments

Guest's picture
Guest

Cool article.

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Guest

Don't forget about Kleenex. When working at a drug store, I actually had people ask for Puffs brand Kleenex.

Guest's picture
Guest

This is advertising. Isn't someone using your name to describe a whole category just about the best thing that could ever happen? Why would you want to stop it?

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Guest

Except for maybe "Peeping Tom"

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Guest

There's nothing inherently wrong with a brand name becoming a household name. The problem arises when it begins to represent all products in the category, and other businesses use the name to promote their own products or services. Here's a fictitious example: "Searchbot: The best google experience on the Web!" If Google doesn't protect its trademark - and prevent "Searchbot" from using its name like this - Google stands to lose ownership of the name and what it represents. A brand name is an asset. Companies pay a lot of money to own them (name development, legal consultation, availability searches, trademark filing, etc.). When the name becomes generic, the company can lose its legal claim to it - along with everything they've invested in it. Then there's the case of brand name misuse - like referring to a "band-aid solution" to a problem, which can denigrate the meaning of Band-Aid (the brand).

Tom Parrette
Director of Verbal Branding

Guest's picture
Guest

Yea the whole article seems counter-intuitive to the goal of these companies to stay relevant.

Guest's picture
Guest

Kool-Aid may be the brand but it's lessened when folks say "Kool-Aid" and Hawiian Punch is served.

Guest's picture
Guest

No. A brand is not lessoned when it owns enough mindshare to become the definition of a catagory. Is it bad that Band-aid owns the word in people's minds when it comes to adhesive bandages. I doubt it. How is the Band-aid brand doing in sales. I still buy them.

I also bet Kool-aid kills Hawaiian Punch.

Guest's picture
Guest

From what I understand, word association is one of the best measures of a brand's success. However, I like how this article brings up a lot of really good points about the potential downsides. As a self-proclaimed linguist I would love to see a comprehensive list of brands that have, over time, mutated/colonized words and their connotations/ meanings.

Guest's picture
Guest

What all I can say is the idea behind the brand success is marketing, advertisement. This article really makes a sense in that way. I really like the idea behind that it’s relevant and cool as well.

By: Kevin Parker
Executive of Data Recovery Software
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