Hoover, Kleenex, Google and Uber: making your way into the lexicon is your industry’s ultimate achievement
Despite objections from legal teams, becoming part of the lexicon should be every marketer’s dream, writes Jason Dooris.
I was Hoovering the other day, and all the dust in the air had me reaching for a Kleenex. Unfortunately, we were all out, so I Googled the closest store that sold them, scribbled the address down with a Biro, then Uber’d my way over there – although not before my wife reminded me to pick up some Vaseline and Onesies.
Alright, so that was perhaps a little forced, but those two logical sentences contain a grand total of seven trademarked words that have become commonly used in the everyday lexicon, largely replacing the generic term used to refer to them.
Some are obvious, if possibly a bit foreign – while we know what someone means when they’re Hoovering or grabbing a Kleenex, here in Australia we’re more inclined to clean with a vacuum and sneeze into a tissue.
Others have become so common that you may not even be aware they began life as trademarked terms. Onesies, for example, is a brand trademark owned by Gerber Childrenswear. As for the humble Biro, it was subject to a British patent in 1938, filed by its creator, Hungarian journalist Laszlo Biro.
Then there are the ones that are seriously new – such as Uber, which has largely replaced ‘taxi’ or ‘cab’ in the markets where the ride-sharing service has taken off, while the verb ‘google’ made its way into most major dictionaries in 2006, and simply means to use a search engine, regardless of which one (although you’re probably using Google, because that’s just the world we live in).
(For those of you playing along at home, the seventh word was ‘Vaseline’, which remains the only triple-purified petroleum jelly on the market.)
It seems like the ultimate marketing tool, doesn’t it? Reaching such a level of market saturation that the name of your company or product becomes synonymous – or even replaces – a centuries-old word. Or, in the case of Google, completely defines the market it has helped to create.
However, companies are very protective of their intellectual property, and don’t necessarily welcome having their product enter the common vocabulary.
Take Gerber and its Onesies. You may think that you were wearing a onesie when you donned that polyester tiger get-up for a bucks show, but you were actually wearing an ‘adult bodysuit’, and the shop you bought it from could be in trouble if they said otherwise.
According to the company, “Gerber Childrenswear is proud of the outstanding name recognition of Onesies® brand in the marketplace (95%) and will continue to be aggressive in protecting our trademark”.
Gerber appears to be of the opinion brand recognition isn’t for them, noting, “The Onesies® trademark, or any variation thereof (i.e. Onesie), cannot be used as a generic descriptor and should only be used when referring to the Onesies® brand by Gerber®.”
But surely Gerber is in the minority?
Actually no – Google is similarly defensive of its name.
It seems counter-intuitive, because it’s the ultimate organic, word-of- mouth advertisement, but for more than a decade the Menlo Park company have sought to define when people can and cannot use google as a verb.
In 2006, shortly after ‘google’ made it to the pages of the Oxford English Dictionary, the company’s then-consumer marketing writer, Michael Krantz, published a blog post seeking to clarify how and when you can Google:
“A trademark is a word, name, symbol or device that identifies a particular company’s products or services. Google is a trademark identifying Google Inc and our search technology and services. While we’re pleased that so many people think of us when they think of searching the web, let’s face it, we do have a brand to protect, so we’d like to make clear that you should please only use ‘Google’ when you’re actually referring to Google Inc and our services.”
Krantz even gave the example of saying “I googled him on Yahoo”, which he said was “Bad. Very, very bad”.
“You can only ‘Google’ on the Google search engine. If you absolutely must use one of our competitors, please feel free to ‘search’ on Yahoo or any other search engine.”
As for the cause for being so precious over something which, let’s face it, they’ve got next to no control over, Krantz was good enough to be honest, saying it’s “as distressing to our trademark lawyers as it is thrilling to our marketing folks”.
And there is a decent argument for the trademark lawyers to be protective of the name – there’s a lot of nefarious stuff on the internet that the company doesn’t need their name being associated with. So, by only using google as a verb when using Google allows them to maintain a level of control – after all, since you can’t access a lot of the grubbier aspects of the worldwide web via Google, logic follows you can’t ‘google’ brand-toxic terms.
Even so, perhaps the worst kind of brand association hasn’t stopped words from becoming popular, or ruined the reputation of the company that invented it.
The obvious example is diamorphine – the deadly, addictive drug which, as a result of Bayer Pharmaceuticals and their clever marketing team, is now far better known as ‘heroin’.
But, guess what? Bayer becoming an international pharmaceutical behemoth was aided by the sales of heroin.
In short, achieving cut-through in an increasingly cluttered world of buzzwords and mean-nothing catchphrases is among the primary aims of a marketer. To actually get a company or product name to become part of the lexicon is one of our industry’s ultimate achievements.
Yes, there may be trademark issues down the road, but that’s a bit like worrying about having to pay more taxes when you become rich – they’re the good kind of problems that are indicative of success.
While there are no guarantees in business, I can’t think of a single product or company that failed as a result of being so well-known they became part of people’s everyday vocabulary. So the lawyers may not be best pleased, but if you create a word that makes its way into
everyday use, feel free to take an esky full of Coke and popsicles out to the jacuzzi – you’ve earned it.
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