3/2019 – Enjoy it…but be careful: when brand names become everyday words

To google, to skype, to sellotape: when a name is perceived less and less as a brand but more as a synonym for the entire product genre, it can come with surprising disadvantages. But why exactly do brands become victims of their own success – and how can it be prevented?

Who knew that Infoscreen is not a generic word for large, digital screens but rather a protected brand from Ströer? Or that Jet Ski is a trademark belonging to Kawasaki? The process which describes this phenomenon is ‘genericisation’ which often happens when a product is so innovative that there is no pre-existing word for it. On the surface it may seem like you’ve hit a home run when your brand is the name on everyone’s lips. This is after all evidence of successful brand building and huge popularity. The name quickly spreads around and becomes well known without excessive investments into advertising campaigns…but unfortunately there is another side to this success.

Free advertising for the competitors

The flip side of the coin: what issue does a manufacturer have, apart from lost sales, when consumers use the more expensive brand name to describe cheaper products? The original producers of the Thermos- or Tupper- products could probably write a book about this problem. Brands such as Vaseline, Aspirin, Tempo, Pampers, Nutella, Zewa, Edding, Post-It, Bobbycar, Labello, Nescafé, Maggi and many others also inadvertently advertise for the less well-known competition. There is just one case in which the manufacturer should be happy that the general public no longer associates the brand with the company: Heroin by Bayer AG. The brand was trademarked in 1898 as a medicine but is now used as a generic term for a narcotic. The trademarked brand itself has however long been a thing of the past.

Uncontrolled use tarnishes the brand image

Consumers are, of course, unaware that they are misusing brand names but for the affected manufacturers it can be very troublesome. That’s how Nestlé’s brand ‘Maggi’ found itself, through no fault of its own, featuring in negative headlines in Germany in 2013. A cloud smelling strongly of lovage (a plant known in Germany for a taste reminiscent of ‘Maggi’ soup seasoning) rolled over the Rhineland. It was caused by an accident in a chemical plant with no relation to the Maggi brand but because lovage is known by the German general public as ‘Maggi-Kraut’, the news spoke of the “rancid Maggi cloud” and the term “Maggi-Einsatz” meaning “Maggi-mission” spread like wildfire on the internet.

The brand Kärcher also experienced questionable publicity in France in 2005. Nicolas Sarkozy, as Home Secretary at the time, responded to riots in numerous French suburbs by announcing that he would “clean [the rioters] with Kärcher” (“nettoyer au Kärcher”). With this statement he shifted both himself and the unfairly quoted brand into a right-wing extremist light. Even with the most professional brand management this kind of thing cannot be avoided but it is frustrating nonetheless.

Complete meltdown: Loss of brand rights

In a worst case scenario, it’s not just the brand image that falters but the trademark as well. The best known example is the Walkman brand by Sony. In Austria in 2002, Sony lost the rights to this brand name because it had become synonymous with portable music players and no longer represented the uniqueness of the product and its unique selling points. Brand owners who don’t want to risk their brand names becoming part of people’s everyday vocabulary must be on constant alert and insist on their brand rights being respected because as soon as the brand name no longer fulfills its original function, it runs this risk of having its trademark questioned.

Google defends itself against brand death

Google has long been fighting this form of insidious brand death. As early as 2006, the company requested (through a lawyer) that all large US media companies only used the verb ‘to google’ in conjunction with the search engine Google. In the dictionary the verb is defined as: “to search for something on the internet using the Google search engine” – that was not always the case. There is a lot at stake for Google; the brand is currently worth over 300 billion US dollars. Many other brands which represent a product genre, ensure that their brand is always tagged with the ®mark – like Twitter, Skype or Dropbox.

Descriptive brand names particularly at risk 

With descriptive brand names, the risk of being used in everyday language is especially high. The best example is the AppStore. In 2011, there was a fierce trademark dispute between Apple and Amazon in the US and Europe. Apple trademarked the name AppStore, which had been in use since 2008, but Amazon filed a complaint and requested that the trademark be removed. Microsoft and some other internet providers joined the motion arguing that the name AppStore (also when written with a hyphen) was too generic and should therefore be released for all to use. Today there’s not just the Amazon and Apple Appstores – many other manufacturers also use the same name e.g. Google, Microsoft and Shopify to name a few.

Why some brand names become generic…. 

Brand names, like the ones previously mentioned, can become everyday words when the product is so innovative that there is no previous word able to describe the product’s uniqueness. For example, how could you quickly and succinctly express what a Segway is? Or Sellotape?  Consumers take the easy route in these cases and use the well-known brand name to describe all products of the genre – even when it comes to competing products. We think of Skype for internet calls for example and Tinder has long been synonymous with online dating. Manufacturers who want to bring new products or services on to the market are therefore well advised to provide a catchy category name. Red Bull has shown how to do this with the addition of ‘Energy Drink.’

Our next genericisation

 The next candidate (or perhaps victim) to be genericised is likely to be Alexa. While there are a multitude of virtual assistants available, Amazon’s product is undoubtedly one of the first to conquer the mass market. At the same time, the name has the potential to establish itself as a part of the English language for several reasons. The name Alexa sounds likeable, familiar and it’s also very easy to pronounce (even on an international scale), which is an important requirement for a brand to become a generic term.

…and other brand names remain immune

 Digitalisation has produced a lot of successful brands which, despite their pioneering roles, have not become generic terms. Examples include Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram and Netflix. That is partly down to their respective names, which don’t function particularly easily as verbs (unlike Google or Skype). In addition to this, the names remain protected through their accessibility; if you want to send a Whatsapp message then you have to use Whatsapp. On the other hand, you can sellotape something to the wall without using the specific Sellotape brand. Even those who are active on Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Xing or LinkedIn are tied to the respective brand name.

Actively managing brand perception 

These exceptions however only confirm the rule; brands can become victims of their own success. It is, of course, impossible to completely prevent brand names becoming a part of normal vocabulary but the perception of the brand can be managed. It is possible to minimise negative consequences and ensure that the manufacturer in question can profit from the popularity of their brand. This starts with a unique, emotional brand positioning, which is closely linked to the (if possible non-descriptive) brand name. It is also sensible for innovative brands to add an easy to pronounce category name and use this as much as possible e.g. Red Bull ‘Energy Drink.’ Consumers can also be made aware of the brand name if the ®mark accompanies it. Here, it is important to note that this symbol should not be exaggerated and should only be used in certain, selected contexts. Companies should ensure their brand never appears in dictionaries or reference books (on- or offline) without a corresponding reference. Last but not least, brand names can be strengthened by using them in conjunction with the umbrella brand they come from. So, there is still hope for Amazon Alexa.

By Sybille Kircher, brand expert from the Düsseldorf based naming agency Nomen (www.nomen.de)

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