Why Companies Don’t Want You To Take Their Brand Names In Vain

by MR Magazine Staff

What else could you call a photocopier? If you answer “a Xerox machine”, you are one of the many people for whom the brand name and the generic item are one and the same. Like many brands that have gone generic, xerox is often lower-case and used as a verb. There are many more of these than people realize: aspirin was once Aspirin, a trademark of Bayer, which was forced to give it up as part of Germany’s reparations after the first world war. Most “universalized” brand names are really only regional. Visitors to the American South are amused to find that its most famous brand is used generically: “You want a coke? We have Mountain Dew, Sprite….” And a vacuum is universally a hoover in Britain: look for “hoover” via a search engine (quick, name one) in Britain and you will be offered hoovers by Dyson, Russell Hobbs and others besides the eponymous company (which, though Americans have not universalized its brand, was founded in Ohio). You would think that having your brand reach universal status would be an occasion for champagne in the boardroom, a sign of total market domination. You would be wrong. What linguists sometimes call “genericisation” of brand names has a grimmer name among marketing types: “genericide”. Companies that see their trademarks go generic may be unable to renew them. So Google does not want you to use the phrase “to google a hoover”—unless you specifically mean that you used Google’s search engine, and not, say Bing. When the Swedish Academy added ogooglebar to its list of new words, meaning “unable to be found with a search engine”, Google hassled the company to change the definition to mean “unable to be found with the Google search engine”, and to include a notice that Google was a registered trademark. The Academy dropped the word from its list instead. That, of course, made ogooglebar a sensation. Foreign coverage of the flap almost uniformly favoured the Swedes. Read more at The Economist.