When brand names go generic

bandaid

What’s a company’s worst nightmare?  Well, I guess there probably isn’t just one scenario that fits the bill.  One of them, though, is a surprising paradox, a sign of success that may also spell disaster.

Most of us know that words like “Xerox” and “Band-Aid” started out as – and still are –   brand names, and that there are generic terms that describe the products they’ve come to give their names to (“photocopy” and “adhesive bandage”, respectively).  But did you know that the following words also started as brand-names — and that some still are?:

  • aspirin
  • Frisbee
  • escalator
  • ZIP code
  • videotape
  • heroin
  • hacky sack
  • dry ice

Sometimes, trademarks aren’t sufficiently protected by their companies, and sometimes, a brand name that’s become a household name falls into the public domain when courts rule that the term is so ubiquitous that there’s no point in restricting it.  Not that all companies whose products are household names lose their trademarks. For example, you can still buy the (necessarily) redundantly named Band-Aid Brand Adhesive Bandages at your local pharmacy.

It may seem like having a brand reach this iconic status would be any company’s dream.  But when you think about it, and when you start researching it, you quickly realize that it’s actually a nightmare.  If you lose your trademark – as, for example, is the case with “escalator” — any company can use what was once the exclusive name of your product, which can ultimately damage its reputation.

And of course, you’ll likely lose money, too: how many consumers would pay attention or take the time to differentiate your brand from the others?  And even if they do, you’d better hope there’s not a cheaper alternative.  Tough economic times, as well as more effective information and marketing strategies, mean that people are increasingly buying generic or store brands for everything from sweets, to pharmaceuticals. Time’s Brad Tuttle writes that in some cases, customers even claim to prefer generic brands.

The threat of going generic has led some companies to adopt unusual strategies.  For example, like many longtime TV viewers, I noticed a few years ago that the catchy jingle “I’m stuck on Band-Aid, ‘cause Band-Aid’s stuck on me”, had changed to the less melodious “I’m stuck on Band-Aid brand, ‘cause Band-Aid brand’s stuck on me.”  Johnson & Johnson’s, owners of Band-Aid, want consumers to remember that their product isn’t interchangeable with any old adhesive bandages out there.

A more recent struggle is that of Google.  We’ve all heard – and probably even used – the term “to google”.  The internet search engine doesn’t find this flattering at all; instead, like Band-Aid, they’ve gone to great lengths to try to protect their brand name.  But as this BBC report attests, even in 2003, it was already too late.  Still, all’s not completely lost: most dictionaries note that “googling” involves using the company’s search engine.

Knowing all this, it may seem understandable that companies want to protect their brand names.  But, interestingly, people like lexicographer Sidney I. Landau see it differently.  For them, forbidding someone to use a word in a certain way infringes on everyone’s freedom of speech and expression.  And that’s a good point, too.

Ultimately, as experts everywhere point out, it’s all about language – and language is a very hard thing to restrict.  You can’t tell people to stop using a certain term, especially if it’s practical or just has a good ring to it…exactly like brand names are supposed to.

So if you’ve just come up with a product with a really great name, you might want to think about making it a little less catchy!

by Alysa Salzberg

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