Get a cut or scrape, you reach for a Band-Aid, not a plastic bandage strip. Need to blow your nose? You ask for a Kleenex, not a tissue. And if you want to buy a tablet computer, there’s a good chance you’ll say, “I want to buy an iPad.”
Companies trip over themselves to make their brands household names. But only a few brands become so engrained in the lexicon that they’re synonymous with the products themselves. This so-called “genericization” can be both good and bad for companies like Apple, which must balance their desire for brand recognition with their disdain for brand deterioration.
Companies will spend millions to create a brand. Millions more are spent on marketing, which can have the unintended effect of making that brand so popular that it becomes the term for that category of products. Kleenex, Band-Aids, Xerox, and Google are all brands that have risked becoming the generic term for the products or services they offer. Does Apple run the risk of this happening with its iPad, the market leading tablet device it manufactures and sells around the world?
“For the vast majority, the idea of a tablet is really captured by the idea of an iPad,'” says Josh Davis, a manager at Abt Electronics in Chicago. “They gave birth to the whole category and brought it to life.”
“There’s tension between legal departments concerned about ‘genericide’ and marketing departments concerned about sales,” says Michael Atkins, a Seattle trademark attorney. “Marketing people want the brand name as widespread as possible and trademark lawyers worry … the brand will lose all trademark significance.”
It’s not a common occurrence. Estimates are that fewer than 5 percent of U.S. brand names become generic. The ones that do are typically inventions or products that improve on what’s already available in the marketplace. When this happens the use of a brand name as a generic term can spread faster than a rumor in high school.
“There’s nothing that can be done to prevent it once it starts happening,” says Michael Weiss, professor of linguistics at Cornell University. “There’s no controlling the growth of language.”
Unless a company fights back, their greatest fear can become realized. A judge can rule that their brand name has become too “generic” to be used as a trademark. Cases such as these saw brand names such as “asprin”, “zipper”, and “escalator” become fair use for any company to use.
To prevent this, companies use marketing to reinforce their trademarks.
Seattlepi.com says, “Xerox is taking a similar route. The company, which introduced the first automatic copier in the U.S. in 1959, has been on a public crusade for decades to keep its brand from becoming generic. The machine’s success has led people to start using “Xerox” to refer to any copying machine, copies made from one and the act of copying.”
Xerox has spent millions taking out ads aimed educating the public about it’s trademark. A 2003 ad read: “When you use ‘Xerox’ the way you use ‘aspirin,’ we get a headache.”
Google has taken another route. It has embraced the fact that its brand name has become the term for searching for something on the web. “You don’t say ‘Why don’t I Google it’ and go to Yahoo or Bing,” says Jessica Litman, professor of copyright law at the University of Michigan Law School.
So, what about Apple and its iPad, is the risk of “genericization” there? “When I think of tablets, I think of an iPad,” says Mary Schmidt, 58, a Baltimore marketing executive. “I think it’s going to be the generic name. They were first.”
“Apple is actually pretty good at this,” says Litman, the law school professor. “It’s able to skate pretty close to the generics line while making it very clear the name is a trademark of the Apple version of this general category.”