Too much of a good thing: Owning the product category name

You should be so lucky to have the name recognition of Kleenex or Ziploc. It’s one of the best things that could happen to you. These brands are synonymous with the entirety of a specific product category and they own valuable real estate in the public’s mind. You don’t ask for a tissue, you ask someone to hand you a Kleenex. And you don’t pack your kid’s lunch in a sandwich bag, you send them off to school with a PB&J in a Ziploc.

These brands are doing something incredible — they’re shaping the way we speak. Think about the Jacuzzi brand. The whole hot tub and whirlpool category is known by a single word — Jacuzzi. The company is so established that Dictionary.com defines them as “a large bath with a system of underwater jets of water to massage the body.” And the word is not listed as your standard “noun” but as a unique “trademark.” Additional companies and products such as Bubble Wrap, Onesie, and Weed Eater all have reserved spots in the dictionary and, more importantly, the popular lexicon.

Owning the generic name of a specific product, like Ziploc or Kleenex, is undeniably a good thing. But with great branding comes great responsibility and entirely new headaches.

When you grow to this size you may not be too big to fail, but you may be too big to expand. Coke has had a similar problem when branching out into new, specialized markets. The world’s most popular beverage company has played around in nuanced territories with the low-carb Coca-Cola C2 and, believe it or not, a coffee flavored drink called Coke BlāK. But both of these products fell flat. It’s because a mammoth company like Coke has a difficult time being multiple places at once. They can’t be a monolith, a health conscious co-op, and an edgy coffee roaster — and still wear the crown as America’s classic drive-in beverage.

So if you can’t beat ’em, buy ’em. Coke doesn’t always have to compete with new beverage trends like flavored waters or healthy drink alternatives. Brands like La Croix aren’t taking a big enough bite out of their wallet — yet. But let’s say they were. A company the size of Coke can buy out a smaller, less established company like La Croix to get rid of the competition and be part of a new product space. It’s what they did with Odwalla, who they purchased in 2001 for $181 million, and again with Honest Tea in 2011.

But a major concern is losing your name to the broader category. It’s known as “genericization” in the branding world. “[Genericization] is the process whereby a brand name stops just identifying a specific product from a specific source,” says Global Trade Magazine. “Instead, the brand name becomes the general term for that type of product.” This may sound like a good thing, but genericization can lead to a mound of legal woes.

In a 2014 BBC News article about genericization, author Simon Tulett stated that smaller companies latch onto an “…exposed brand and [swoop] to attach its powerful name to their own products. And if they can convince intellectual property judges that they are entitled to use it because it’s now an everyday word, that trademark is dead and buried — the victim of ‘genericide.’” In short, you lose the ability to fight off everyone who uses your name for their product.

Just ask the Wham-O toy company, owners of the Frisbee trademark. A quick frisbee search on Amazon turns up results from companies like SchwabMarken, Wealers, and others who advertise their product as a Frisbee (I guess “flying disc” isn’t as popular). Wham-O can’t possibly fend off all of these companies who use the Frisbee name to describe their product. It’s the price of being a wildly successful company.

However there are strategies to stave off genericization and remind the public of the little ® at the end of their name. One such technique is targeted advertising. Atlantic staff writer, Megan Garber explains that large companies, “…place messages in trade publications targeted to journalists reminding them to include the ® when they’re writing about products like Kleenex (sorry, Kleenex®), Botox (BOTOX®), and Tabasco (TABASCO®).” One of my favorite advertisements of this ilk is a slightly-awkward plea from Xerox found in the ABA Journal. See below.

But all is not lost. Owning the general product category is a serious boon for your company and marketing department. It’s a sign of success. It shows your name has won over the hearts and minds of a broad audience — and that’s quite difficult to do. But it doesn’t mean your work is finished. Staying on top is a full-time job.