Stop Mass Genericide

Self-Proclaimed Brand Geek Uncovers Why Overzealous Marketing Makes Branding Irrelevant

It was a morning like any other. I woke and started my normal routine. In the bathroom, I grabbed a Kleenex® to wipe my nose. I fished a Q-Tip® out of the container on my counter. I applied a Band-Aid® to the index finger I had scraped the day before.

Then this thought floated in – and it wasn’t a thought I hadn’t had a thousand times before: Why is a Kleenex a Kleenex, a Q-Tip a Q-Tip, and a Band-Aid a Band-Aid? I didn’t even know if I was using the branded product, but my mind makes no differentiation between the brand and all other products in its category.

I’m sort of a brand geek, so that morning in my bathroom I decided that I was going to get to the bottom of this. My first step? I went into the office and talked to Jeremy, who I would argue is a fellow brand geek. We began theorizing. Were these megabrands, the owners of their categories, born at a time when big captive advertising was king?

We decided to do some research, so I started by Googling® the topic. What I found was a series of issue stories that this self-proclaimed brand geek hadn’t considered.

Allow me to take a few steps back. My passion is creating brands and solidifying existing brands so they make meaningful connections with their audience. While I’ve never had a client tell me “I want to be the Kleenex of my industry,” they all certainly have a goal of elevating recognition, appreciation and loyalty to a level that makes the brand stand above the rest.

On the surface, it seems like Kleenex, Q-Tip, and many other brands I came across that I didn’t even know were brands* would be in the driver’s seat. They own their categories, right?

Not exactly.

According to some experts , brands reach this elevated state by either being first to market, bringing some sort of massive innovation or being the 800-pound-gorilla in the market. Oh, and some great marketing helps too. Who wouldn’t want to be in this position?

Brand Genericide – Don’t Do It

The truth is that you wouldn’t. While it may seem great to be the Band-Aid of your industry, you run the risk of what’s called genericide – the name of your brand becomes so generic in the market that consumers don’t distinguish your product from all others in the category.

I then learned that there have actually been brands that have lost the rights to use their brand names because they had become so genericized. Did you know that Aspirin used to be a brand name owned by Bayer? And that Zipper, Yo-Yo, and Escalator also used to be brand names? They had come to represent the product and category in such a commonplace way – and some even used the terms in a very non-branded way in their own advertising – that their patents and legal rights were lost.

Today, there’s a movement by many brands to protect their rights to their brand names. Kleenex ran an ad campaign encouraging folks to always use the registered trademark symbol (®) and the word “tissue” immediately following the brand. The campaign was a rallying cry to help them protect their identity. Google has also actively encouraged partners and others to not use Google as a verb, but to refer to the act, instead, as “performing a Google search” or a “Google web search.”

Your Brand has Rights

All that said, the bottom line is this – strive to create a brand that’s great, deliver on the brand promise, and create incredible customer service. But do it while protecting your rights. Don’t go the way of the zipper or escalator. If you have brand names or products that need to be protected, get an intellectual property attorney and put the appropriate legal measures in place. Take care when referring to your own products and services, and never use language in your communications that would genericize you. The fact is, that only 5% of brands find themselves in a situation where they face genericide, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t protect yourself.

*Did you know that Frisbee, dumpster, and Laundromat are all brand names?