What Happens When Brands Become Generic?

Digital Marketing

Jeff Hetland

“Excuse me, could you pass me a Tork, please?”

If you’re like me, you’re asking yourself what the hell a Tork is. Well, it’s a brand of tissue. And if you’re like many people, you probably hear “tissue” and automatically think about Kleenex®.
 
Powerful brands such as Kleenex, Velcro® and Band-Aid® pioneered their industries and became household names by having great products, utilizing smart marketing campaigns and capitalizing on opportunities.

A Brief Look at Kleenex

First introduced and trademarked in 1924, Kleenex owned the facial tissue market and maintained its dominance despite the introduction of other competitors (e.g., Puffs®, Tork®, Angel Soft®). By leading in innovation and listening to what consumers said about their product, Kleenex’s brand developed faster than any competitor. And gained more traction.
 
With over 165 million Americans using Kleenex each year, the brand boasts nearly 300 percent higher sales than their next competitor. It’s obvious why consumers say “Kleenex” when referring to facial tissue, regardless of the actual brand.
 
However, after becoming a household name—the pinnacle of marketing goals—a brand could metaphorically burst with continued growth. The result leads to a brand becoming generic. 

Think about what you reach for after you sneeze—a facial tissue or a Kleenex? Or the shoes you wore in kindergarten—hook and loop fastened shoes or Velcro shoes? When you have a cut on your finger—an adhesive bandage or a Band-Aid?

By using brand names in a generic sense, the brands can fall victim to genericide.

What is Genericide?

Genericide is the term used when a brand legally loses its mark by reaching a point where the product name is no longer differentiated and is therefore synonymous with the generic product. Aspirin, escalator and flip phone lost their trademarks due to genericization. Kleenex, Velcro and Band-Aid are fighting to hold their trademarks. 

In fact, they’re launching educational marketing campaigns to inform consumers about the potential consequences of using brand names in a generic sense (i.e., saying “Velcro” instead of saying “hook and loop”).

Should Kleenex lose its trademark, every box of facial tissue in the grocery aisle can don the word kleenex (lowercase ‘k’) on the packaging. The Kleenex name will get lost on the shelf, its differentiation softened and brand identity diminished.

Genericide in the Tech World

Genericide even affects tech brands, not just consumer products. Internet and software brands find their way into everyday vocabulary by being used as verbs. 

For instance, when looking up a video, would you “video search” it or “YouTube” it? When touching up a photo, would you say you “edited” or “photoshopped” it? 

Recently, Google defended its name from genericization in federal court. The court decided against an entrepreneur that had built a case claiming the term “google” when used as a verb is synonymous with “search the internet,” thus labeled as generic. This time, Google held onto its brand identity.

Some Final Thoughts for Your Brand

If your brand’s name rolls off the tongue as a verb like these do or the public uses your brand name when referring to a generic product, you could be in danger of becoming generic. But, to be realistic, this isn’t a huge concern for most companies.

Instead, you can learn a few key lessons about brand identity and equity:

  1. Make sure you establish solid brand identity guidelines.
    Brand guidelines can protect your brand—it’s logo usage, tone, voice, tagline and other assets—across channels. As companies grow, it’s even more important to have a solid foundation that helps brands avoid fragmenting their identities.  
  2. Education your internal team.
    In the face of running must-have external marketing campaigns, many companies forget to communicate clearly with internal teams. Your team members are the people on the front lines—the ones who add character to your brand. It’s vital that they understand proper ways to communicate about your brand externally as it evolves.
  3. Don’t blindly follow successful competitors.
    In your brand guidelines, you should have created a clear, differentiated value proposition and positioning statement. While your brand can be valuable in part because of its contrast to competitors, it can also lose value when it becomes too similar. Customers latch onto brands and follow them when they have unique personalities, distinctive core values and a relevant, resonating voice.

Despite some of the legal pitfalls that huge companies encounter with their trademarked brands, it's important to remember why these brands succeeded in the first place: a solid brand foundation.

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