Protecting your brand name

What happens when your company brand name becomes part of the public domain? Do you complain? Do you contact your lawyers? Do you thank your customers and then thank your lucky (hah!) stars that you are a verb?

Ask Google and Apple. No easy answer, you say? It's called protecting your brand? But what about the lawyers? Do we worry about what they do to your brand? Really, are they stewards of your brand or are they about risk management?

You enjoy your verb status in the beginning but then you are past the point of no return. Does your brand name belong to the world or can you (or rather your lawyers) reclaim it?

It's called being a victim of your own success. Albeit one that nobody feels sorry for.

What's a brand to do? It's a quandry.

Comments (18)

  1. BlakeHandler says:

    Or like "Coke" — you have one company that actually make the product, then you have another (legal) "company" that simply defends its product’s name.

    It was easier when we actually "branded" our company’s name on the shipping box.

  2. HeatherLeigh says:

    And when I lived in California, we called all soft drinks "Coke" (as in  "do you want a Coke?" / "Yes, please"/"what kind?"/ "7-Up". Where were the brand police then?

    I almost think that these companies should consider launching their new products with an accompanying verb that they don’t mind getting sullied by all us riff-raff.

  3. Ed Kuryluk says:

    I think it is interesting how Hormel Foods has handled Spam vs. spam. That word in certain contexts has a negative connotation, but they have managed to carefully use legal means to protect their brand, while not looking like a corporate ogre.

    According to Wikipedia: "The British comedy troupe Monty Python used this as the context for their Spam sketch, which gave rise to the term spam as the common term for unsolicited bulk electronic messages. Hormel does not object to the term, but insists that it be spelled in lower case so as to distinguish it from its capitalized Spam trademark. Hormel objects to Spam’s "product identity" (for example, images of Spam cans) being used in relation to spamming, and has filed lawsuits against companies which have attempted to trademark words containing "spam".

    It’s also refreshing to see them embrace the usage of Spam in  popculture by promoting Monty Python’s Spamalot on the homepage.

  4. HeatherLeigh says:

    Ed- interesting. Also, Hormel has done a lot to show they have a sense of humor (the TV ads) which I suspect helped their brand cause. I think the diff between Hormel and Apple and Google is that Hormel embraced it and figured out how to leverage it (goodwill derived from the avoidance of visible and perceived unreasonable legal activity). Good example of a company managing the same issues elegantly.

  5. Paul says:

    This is actually not that difficult to navigate.  Hormel has clearly done the right thing with spam, and actually used the generic word to their benefit.

    Trademark law requires that you defend a name against dilution. If a name becomes generic by falling into the popular lexicon as a descriptor for a category (e.g. Kleenex, Aspirin) through non-defense, you lose the right to stop competitors from using it, or anyone else from using it inappropriately.

    The trick is to officially, let your lawyers do their job and send letters so you can prove you were defending the trademark, aggressively pursue competitive issues (why would you want to allow someone to trade on your name and goodwill), but then do everything possible in a non-official capacity to make your name be so ubiquitous that it is a generic stand in for the category. In other words, you have to keep your lawyers under control and take a few risks.

    One of Google’s great successes is getting people to say "I’m going to google ________".  Or, in response to a question "I don’t know, why don’t you google it?" Having become the generic word for search, like kleenex became for facial tissue, they have ensured brand dominance of the category for generations. On the other hand, you will never see them allowing Ask Jeeves or MSN to replace the text on the ‘Go’ button beside the search field with the generic google.

    However, their success will be for naught if the trademark office decides that Google is a generic word and that anyone can use it. Don’t blame the lawyers for this stupidity, blame Washington and the courts for allowing the Aspirin trademark to be ruled generic in 1924.

    This decision had as much to do with the politics of the time as with brand dilution, given that Bayer was a German company and this was in the years after WW1.  In fact, the US has a track record of abrogating foreign trademarks for political reasons (can anyone say ‘Budweiser’, a name stolen from the the much better-tasting Czech brand), yet hypocritically accusing other countries of enabling IP theft. Regardless, the precedent remains on the books and it causes lawyers everywhere to send stupid letters.

    So, we are left with the contradiction that it is in every company’s best interest to have their company or product name become the category flag bearer from a marketing perspective, but that as soon as it does, they have to send out silly legal letters slapping your hands for inappropriate use. Hormel lawyers do the same, I assure you.

    As long as Google doesn’t start taking bloggers to court, though, I think they’ll be safe from negative backlash.

    regarding the Coke thing:

    There was a very famous SNL skit in the mid-70s which came about because of the Coke/Pepsi thing. Legally, if someone asks for a Coke, you are not allowed to serve them Pepsi because they have requested a specific brand and the lawyers for both aggressively police brand dilution.  That’s why if you go to a restaurant that serves Pepsi and ask for a Coke, they will almost always say "We only have Pepsi, is that OK?"

    read the Olympia Cafe skit at:

    And remember, No Coke – Pepsi.

  6. HeatherLeigh says:

    Interesting. I hadn’t thought about google as being the generic word for search as much as a verb (but still denoting usage of their specific search engine). I haven’t heard anyone using the verb google in combination with another search engine. So it will be interesting to see what happens.

  7. Wine-Oh says:

    This reminds me of when someone says I am off to xerox some documents. Xerox is a brand. It should really be Im off to copy some documents. Canon, HP, and Minolta I am sure feel left out when their name isnt used as a verb.

    Also Tivo has become a verb. How many times do you hear "Did you Tivo that show last night?"

    In the UK the term for a vaccum cleaner is Hoover. "Did you hoover the house today?" Talk about brand recognition.

  8. HeatherLeigh says:

    Wine-Oh, I think I may be on the cusp of the generation that actually does refer to "xeroxing" as copying. I think it could also be an east coast/west coast thing.

    I use Tivo as a verb all the time. First to or biggest in market gets to be the verb, I guess.

  9. Wine-Oh says:

    Yeah I say copy too as opposed to Xerox. How embarrasing to go into a kinkos and say "I need to Xerox some documents please."

    Oh and another one. People calling chicken nuggets ‘mc nuggets’ even when they arent at a McDonalds.

    The east coast/west coast discussion is a posting onto itself. 🙂 When I was in college it was interesting to hear what people from different areas called things. Mid-westerners called soda pop, while people in the northeast like me called it soda. People from New England called sprinkles (as in the color or chocolate ones you put on ice cream) jimmies. The list goes on.

  10. HeatherLeigh says:

    Wine-Oh…who are these people you are hanging out with? ; ) My dad calls sprinkles jimmies. During my time in the midwest, we did say "pop" (what can I say? i adapt). Now I just ask for exactly what I want (and I would never put those things on oce cream!). As for mc nuggets….gross.

  11. Jim S says:

    I just googled my mac off at the pool.

  12. Wine-Oh says:

    Too much information Jim S. 🙂

  13. Simone says:

    Most companies would kill to have their products within the public domain, that is, as long as people continue purchasing their products. Lawyers and other "stewards" do not matter when it comes to this. Every company should strive for this. If it were to come about they should let the marketing team attempt to maintain market share.

    Apple’s ipod will eventually falter because, unlike Coke, they only have a single product that falls into this category. The only way they can fight it is by updating the ipod with new technology frequently. They’ve been doing this but will find it harder and harder to pull off. An ipod phone would be another can of worms though. It would have to justify its high cost and withstand massive competition. I see an Apple phone tanking.

    What do you think Heather?

  14. mrscrooge says:

    >What’s a brand to do?

    Hope they can ride the wave as long as possible. Apple’s doing that brilliantly with the iPod. I don’t see an iPod phone because with the phone, Jobs can’t have 100% creative control over the project because its a different business where you have to work very closely with the mobile operators to be able to succeed. How many friends do you know of that own a Rokr? Jobs hates losing, I think he got a bad aftertaste with the mobile industry and isn’t going back. My guess is apple will do a media center type product.

    <Not a spelling nazi and you you can leave this line out , its a ‘quandary’:) >


  15. HeatherLeigh says:

    Jim S- as my grandpa used to say, "welcome to my ool, notice there’s no "p" in it…let’s keep it that way"…I guess I felt I needed to repeat this since I’m not sure what googling ones mac off is exactly.

    Mrscrooge- I don’t know….suing people for use of the work "pod" doesn’t really sound like riding the wave. It’s more in line with the need for "control" we’ve heard about with Jobs. It’s like the inner control freak aspect is colliding with the external chill hip factor. There’s only room for one in the minds of the consumer, I fear.

  16. mrscrooge says:

    >suing people for use of the work "pod"

    oh is that whats going on? Yuck, not cool at all.

    Jobs is fascinating – I highly recommend "Infinite Loop" and "The Second Coming of Steve Jobs".

  17. Mala Sheth says:

    Yes i am also wondering that, is this process of conversion of brand in to generic good for the companies?

    Can brand names become legally generic?

    And after being legallygeneric can all companies use the brand name with the company name?

    Really a good topic for researching

  18. Emily says:

    To the sprinkles/ jimmies thing originated in Boston. There was a little boy named Jimmy who always ordered sprinkles on his ice cream. The one shop started calling them Jimmies and the name spread, I think all over Mass. It always cracks me up when I order jimmies in another state and get the strangest of looks!

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