Brand Dilution: A case of mistaken vocabularyBrand Camp
January 24, 2018
Imagine you have a brand name that's so popular, so highly recognizable that it simply needs no introduction. You’ve struck business and marketing gold right? Not always. Reaching dizzying heights in the popularity stakes also means there is a risk of brand dilution or worse, genericide, where a brand becomes a generic term through popular and common usage.
Companies that have attained viral and cult-like status with a brand name can find themselves in this problematic position of having their brands mistakenly used as a byword for a general product or service. These companies not only spend up big building brand equity but also defending against potential brand erosion.
Here’s a short list of brands that you’ve probably been throwing around casually as everyday words. Tsk tsk tsk.
Generic name: an internet search engine
"Googling". "Googled". "Google It". Google’s online prominence has resulted in the brand often being used as a verb for searching anything and everything on the Internet. But the Oxford English Dictionary definition is: “Search for information about (someone or something) on the Internet using the search engine Google”. This definition refers to searching using the Google® search engine specifically. In October 2017, a US Court confirmed this view and rejected an argument that Google® had become a generic term. The Court noted that the widespread use of the term was “discriminate” use, referring specifically to Google’s search engine, rather than “indiscriminate” use in reference to just any old search engine. The Google® brand juggernaut rolls on.
Generic name: an adhesive plaster or bandage
It’s been a registered trade mark since 1925 and Johnson & Johnson have gone to considerable effort to educate consumers to combat against genericide. References to the brand on the website appear as BAND-AID® Brand. On the product packaging, BAND-AID® appears prominently with the words “Brand Adhesive Bandages” following closely underneath. Even the original lyrics to their famous 1980s "I am stuck on Band-Aid” jingle were also changed and re-released with reference to BAND-AID® Brand. Bonus random side note: the original jingle was written by Barry – Copacobana - Manilow. Looks like he made it.
Generic name: facial tissue
When you’re watching the next tear-jerking episodes of This Is Us and someone asks you to pass them the “kleenex”, take a moment to remind them that they’re actually asking for a tissue. The Kleenex® trade mark has been registered since 1924 and owned by Kimberly-Clark Corporation, who have no problem reminding folks that Kleenex® is their brand. In 2011, the company placed an advertisement in the Columbia Journalism Review appealing to journalists to help them protect their brand by ensuring the correct use of the name.
Generic name: inflated cushioning
Since the introduction of the product and the brand in 1960, popping a sheet of BubbleWrap® is one of life’s simple pleasures. But popping a sheet of inflated cushioning or Air Cap (the product's original name) just doesn’t seem nearly as satisfying. Mark your calendars and celebrate this poppin’ good pastime on 29 January 2018 - it’s BubbleWrap® Appreciation Day. Happy popping!
Generic name: vacuum cleaner; vacuuming
No it’s not a noun referring to just any vacuum cleaner or verb referring to the fun-filled chore of vacuuming. The folks at Hoover® probably don’t appreciate it being used in reference to terrible table manners either – you inhale your food, you don’t “hoover” it. Suck it up people – the fact is Hoover® is a brand name.
Generic name: Hook and loop fasteners
Velcro® was invented by George de Mastreal in 1941, patented in 1958 and has since been a trademark of Velcro Industries B. V. Proving to be an incredibly popular and successful name, Velcro® is often used in reference to all hook and loop fasteners. Velcro Industries have even released a hilarious instructional video teaching consumers how to correctly use the name. You can't ignore the message or the harmony: It's f***ing hook and loop.
Generic name: a personal watercraft
Next time you’re on holiday and looking to recreate a scene from Baywatch, you’ll likely be hiring a personal watercraft. It’s only a Jet Ski, if it is in fact made by Kawasaki Heavy Industries Inc.
Generic name: frozen ice treat on a stick
Even in a sweltering heatwave, Unilever will not excuse your misuse of their trade mark Popsicle®. Their website even recommends that unless you’re asking for a Popsicle®, all other generic frozen pops on a stick should be called “pops,” “ice pops” or “freezer pops.” Cold Unilever. Ice cold.
Generic name: correction fluid
“Pssst can I borrow your w(h)ite-out?” If you’re asked this, correct stationery and office etiquette should require that you only lend Wite-out® branded product and not just any old correction fluid. The Wite-out® product was originally patented and trademarked in 1971. The BIC Corporation purchased the rights to the name in 1992 and still owns the rights to this day.
Generic name: portable cooler
Keeping the beer cold and beach cricket flowing, the old portable cooler box can be found at every Aussie bbq, campsite or beach. Esky® is a registered trade mark of Coleman Australia and they make damn sure you know it too. As their website states: If it doesn’t say Esky®, it’s not an Esky®.
Generic name: infant bodysuit
If you’re listing “onesie” products on Ebay, Etsy, etc, unless it's a bona fide Onesie® branded bodysuit, you’ll likely receive a lovely notice from the owners of the trade mark, Gerber Childswear. The cease and desist letter is unlikely to be as comfortable as their Onesie® product is marketed to be. They’re known to aggressively enforce their rights to defend against misuse of their brand. Online sellers beware.
Generic name: a slow cooker
Introduced in 1971, the Crock-Pot® slow cooker was the must-have appliance for busy working families. It was so popular that the brand name became a generic reference to any slow cooker on the market. Even today, the company stresses that if it doesn't actually say "Crock-Pot®" it's not an original.
Generic name: table tennis
Believe it or not, Ping Pong® is actually the name of a brand of table tennis tables, not the game itself. Coined from the sound the ball makes when hit, it was originally trademarked by Jaques & Son back in 1901. The trade mark is still owned and used today by Parker Brothers.
Generic name: electroshock weapon
“Don’t electroshock me bro”. It’s pretty hard to respect the trade mark rights and ask authorities if they are in fact using a Taser® branded weapon on you. So you could forgive the misuse of the brand as a verb under the stressful circumstances. Inventor Jack Cover created the Taser® in 1974 and derived the name from an acronym for “Thomas A Swift’s Electric Rifle”, a reference to his favourite childhood hero.
Seeing Eye® Dog
Generic name: guide dog
Technically, it's only a Seeing Eye® dog, if the dog has been trained by Seeing Eye Inc. of Morristown New Jersey. Any other guide or assistance dog can only be referred to generically as a guide dog. Regardless, of whether it's a Seeing Eye® dog or guide dog, they’re all pretty amazing animals.
Here are some practical tips for all you brand owners out there to ensure that your trade mark doesn’t become a victim of its own success:
- Take care when using your trade mark and avoid using it as a noun, verb or adjective. If you opt to use your brand descriptively, make sure the generic name of the product or service follows. For example Band-aid® Brand Adhesive Bandages or Photoshop® photo editing software.
- Emphasise the significance of your trade mark by using the symbols ™ alongside an unregistered trade mark, or ® alongside your trade mark, if it is registered. Further emphasis of the significance of trade mark can be achieved by highlighting the trade mark in a different font, weight, colour or size, to help distinguish it from any general text.
- Educate your customers, employees, licensees and distributors about the proper use of your trade mark. You might consider listing the correct way to use your trade mark in the T&Cs of your website, licensing agreements or in a style guide.
- Be diligent! Proactively police and monitor use of your trade mark in the marketplace. It will allow you to get a jump on any unwanted or unauthorised use of your trade mark before it gets out of hand. Also, where matters may escalate, taking diligent and active steps to enforce your rights may be considered favourably by a Court.
As the old saying goes: with great brand popularity, comes great responsibility - to maintain valuable brand equity.