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An Upside to Brand Genericide

Despite lawyers’ conventional wisdom, becoming a household name can actually be a brilliant marketing strategy.

Bottom LineDespite conventional wisdom and years of legal practice, becoming a household name can prove to be a brilliant marketing strategy for companies.

When you’re stumped by some momentarily forgotten piece of trivia and casually suggest to a friend, “Let’s google it,” you’re doing a lot more than taking a 21st-century shortcut to knowledge. You’re contributing to the downfall of Google Inc., according to decades-old legal doctrine that says companies can only lose when their brand name becomes synonymous with a given activity or product usage. Lawyers coined the term genericide in the 1980s to describe the unfortunate fate that awaits the Escalators and Aspirins of the business world.

To be sure, when people start thinking of cokes and sodas interchangeably, there’s no reason they should seek out a genuine Coca-Cola. Legislation reaching back to 1946 states that companies can lose their ownership of a brand name if there’s enough evidence that the public uses the term generically. Accordingly, lawyers have long warned the business community that genericide can wipe out a brand’s value.

But marketing specialists have lately embraced the opposite viewpoint: that “genericization,” or the widely disseminated use of a brand name, can be one of the best ways to stand out in an increasingly competitive marketplace.  The Internet has only fueled this trend. Many of the most-hyped brands that have emerged in recent years have quickly seen their names turned into verbs: Consumers facebook with friends, tivo their favorite shows, skype with long-distance contacts, and yes, google anything they want to know.

“Genericization” can be one of the best ways to stand out in a competitive marketplace.

Accordingly, a new paper, based largely on a case study of Google but also on analysis of several other companies’ experiences, proposes a road map for brand managers seeking to determine whether they should use the marketing approach or the legal defense, or a mixture of the two. And although the author finds that the genericization strategy can succeed—for the right types of companies and market conditions—it can still backfire if not handled properly.

Historically, most companies have tried to protect their brand name. As the author notes, Rank Xerox used to wryly remind consumers in its own ad campaigns, “When you use ‘Xerox’ the way you use ‘aspirin,’ we get a headache.” Other firms have used their websites to hammer home the message. Jacuzzi Brands Inc., for example, explicitly requests that hotels and spas help protect the firms’ trademark.

Diversification is another popular tactic. Heinz has turned out a range of products, including ketchup, beans, and soups, to avoid becoming synonymous with any one item. Subtle differences in design or packaging can also help a brand stand out from the crowd, the way Apple used the iPod Nano’s unique look and features to differentiate it from other portable music players. “The end result [of Apple’s marketing strategies] is that no one asks for ‘a Samsung iPad’ in big electronics stores,” the author writes.

There’s no doubt, however, that Google has changed the game since the days of Band-Aids, Kleenex, and Q-tips. The company’s founders encouraged the use of the term googling to promote the brand’s genericization. Not that they were completely naive: When google first popped up in a Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2006, the company successfully got the definition changed to include a reference to a trademark.

And in 2009, the company’s embrace of genericization proved its value. When rival Microsoft unveiled the Bing search engine to challenge Google’s dominance, Microsoft devoted a US$100 million communications budget to get the phrase bing it to catch on. It failed. The wider point, though, is that unlike Rank Xerox’s attempts in years past to stamp out the use of xeroxing as a synonym for photocopying, Google and Microsoft were basing much of their competitive stance on encouraging the use of their brand names verbs.

As one Google communications manager said, the principal reason for Google’s attitude is the changing pace of business. In an era when reputations can be established quickly or ruined practically overnight, the development of a brand’s meaning typically extends far beyond internal directives from management; consumers, employees, retailers, and social media play a continual role in shaping the public perception of a brand. Put simply, Google considers the benefits of genericization to far outweigh the risks.

Brand managers wondering which position to take should carefully weigh a couple of variables, the author advises. Namely, they should consider the stature of their brand—an iconic status means the brands are valued by consumers as much for their symbolism as for their function—and the competitive nature of their market.

For example, an iconic brand in a fast-moving industry (such as Google) can clearly turn genericization into a winning strategy because name recognition can help firms stand out from the pack. On the other hand, a merely functional brand that hasn’t achieved iconic status and operates in a similarly intense environment (such as Bing) should strive to protect its identity from genericide and stress the product’s strengths before attempting to become a household name.

For iconic brands in slow-paced industries, companies can generally play both hands at once. For example, Nestlé has promoted its Nescafé (which is synonymous with instant coffee throughout France) with a combination of trademark protections, differentiated flavors and packaging, and interactive marketing campaigns that give the company some degree of genericization without threatening the brand’s core value. Finally, non-iconic brands in relatively staid markets—such as Bic among lighters—should stick to the legal route, the author suggests, because slow-moving industries give would-be competitors more time to copy or undermine the product’s basic features or marketing edge.

In general, though, the modern business world leaves less time for the risks of genericide to develop, the author suggests. The Internet makes it easier for companies to monitor any unauthorized use of their brand name and to co-create a strong brand image with consumers, employees, and partners. That combination should make it easier for more companies to reap the rewards of genericization, provided they judge their marketplace and standing correctly.

Source: Re-branding Brand Genericide, by Bernard Cova (Kedge Business School), Business Horizons, May–Jun. 2014, vol. 57, no. 3
Matt Palmquist

Matt Palmquist is a freelance business journalist based in Oakland, Calif.

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