Language Matters in Marketing

A few businesses—mostly large ones—have the apparent good fortune of owning a mark that has become a household word. But, paradoxically, once the mark becomes so much of a household word that it becomes synonymous with any product or service of the sort it originally represented, it ceases to be a mark—it becomes generic. For example, some people refer to all facial paper tissues as Kleenex, and all acetaminophen analgesics as Tylenol. These marks would be in danger of becoming lost through “genericide” if the companies did not protest such improper uses of the marks.

The problem is this: The more well-known a particular mark becomes, the more the public is prone to equate the mark with the underlying product rather than view it as one brand name among many. This is just another way of saying that the mark loses its ability to identify a particular brand and becomes generic. Only a tiny number of companies will face this problem—it tends to arise with revolutionary new products that the public comes to associate with the name their first manufacturer gives them, like Rollerblades for in-line skates. But because genericide is avoidable, you ought to know how to prevent your mark from going generic if that seems to be even a remote possibility.

The best ways to keep a mark from becoming generic are:

               Accompany every use of the mark with the generic product or service (for example, Kleenex tissues).

               Never use the mark as a verb (for instance, you never go “roller blading,” you skate on Rollerblade skates).

               Always capitalize your mark (Tylenol.

               Never use the mark as a general noun (for instance, don’t call a photocopy a “Xerox”).


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