Apple Inc is on the verge of doing what few others have: Change the English language.
When you have a boo-boo, you reach for a Band-Aid, not a bandage. When you need to blow your nose, you ask for Kleenex, not tissues. If you decide to look up something online, you Google instead of search for it. And if you want to buy a tablet computer, there’s a good chance there’s only one name you’ll remember.
“For the vast majority, the idea of a tablet is really captured by the idea of an iPad,”’ says Josh Davis, a manager at Abt Electronics in Chicago. “They gave birth to the whole category and brought it to life.”
Companies trip over themselves to make their brands household names, but only a few brands become so engrained in the lexicon that they’re synonymous with the products themselves. This so-called “genericization” can be both good and bad for companies like Apple, which must balance its desire for brand recognition with its disdain for brand deterioration.
It’s one of the biggest contradictions in business. Companies spend millions to create a brand. Then, they spend millions more on marketing that can have the unintended consequence of making those names so popular that they become shorthand for similar products. It’s like if people start calling station wagons Bentleys. It can diminish a brand’s reputation.
“There’s tension between legal departments concerned about ‘genericide’ and marketing departments concerned about sales,” says Michael Atkins, a Seattle trademark attorney. “Marketing people want the brand name as widespread as possible and trademark lawyers worry ... the brand will lose all trademark significance.”
It doesn’t happen often. In fact, it’s estimated that fewer than 5 percent of US brand names become generic. Those that do typically are inventions or products that improve on what’s already on the market. The brand names then become so popular that they eclipse rivals in sales, market share and in the minds’ of consumers. And then they spread through the English language like the common cold in a small office.
Apple Inc’s iPad is dominating the tablet category. When many consumers think of tablets, they only think of the iPad. Below is a list of other brand names that have become so popular that they’ve joined the world of common nouns. Some of the brands became so generic that they lost their trademarks.
Sorry, you lose:
‧ Aspirin — Bayer AG lost the trademark in 1921.
‧ Heroin — Bayer AG lost the trademark in 1919.
‧ Escalator — Otis Elevator Co lost the trademark in 1950.
‧ Thermos — Thermos LLC lost the trademark in 1963.
‧ Yo-yo — Duncan lost the trademark in 1965.
‧ Zipper — B.F. Goodrich lost the trademark in the 1920s.
Still hanging on:
‧ Band-Aid — Trademarked by Johnson & Johnson.
‧ Kleenex — Trademarked by Kimberly-Clark.
‧ Jell-O — Trademarked by Kraft.
‧ Xerox — Trademarked by Xerox Corp.
“There’s nothing that can be done to prevent it once it starts happening,” says Michael Weiss, professor of linguistics at Cornell University. “There’s no controlling the growth of language.”
A company’s biggest fear is that its brand name becomes so commonly used to describe a product that a judge rules that it’s too “generic” to be a trademark. That means that any product — even inferior ones — can legally use the name. A brand is usually declared legally generic after a company sues another firm for using its name and the case goes to a federal court.
Drug maker Bayer lost trademarks for the names “aspirin” and “heroin” this way in the 1920s. So did B.F. Goodrich, which sued to protect its trademark of “zipper” in the 1920s after the name joined the world of common nouns. Similar cases deemed “escalator” generic in 1950, “thermos” generic in 1963 and “yo-yo” generic in 1965.
It’s difficult to quantify how much revenue a company loses when its brand is deemed generic. However, companies worry that it breeds confusion among consumers.
To prevent their names from becoming generic, some companies use marketing to reinforce their trademarks. For instance, after its Band-Aid brand name started becoming commonly used to refer to adhesive bandages, Johnson & Johnson changed its jingle in ads from “I’m stuck on Band-Aid” to “I’m stuck on Band-Aid brand.”