Will the iPad follow the path of zippers, escalators, and heroin?
Despite other companies' efforts to create a household brand name, Apple has won with the iPad. The name is used not only to describe Apple's popular products, but also tablets in general.
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Drug maker Bayer lost trademarks for the names "aspirin" and "heroin" this way in the 1920s. So did B.F. Goodrich, which sued to protect its trademark of "zipper" in the 1920s after the name joined the world of common nouns. Similar cases deemed "escalator" generic in 1950, "thermos" generic in 1963 and "yo-yo" generic in 1965.Skip to next paragraph
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It's difficult to quantify how much revenue a company loses when its brand is deemed generic. But companies worry that it breeds confusion among consumers.
To prevent their names from becoming generic, some companies use marketing to reinforce their trademarks. For instance, after its Band-Aid brand name started becoming commonly used to refer to adhesive bandages, Johnson & Johnsons changed its jingle in ads from "I'm Stuck on Band-Aid" to "I'm Stuck on Band-Aid brand."
Kleenex uses "Kleenex brand" instead of just "Kleenex" on its packaging and in marketing and places ads to remind people Kleenex is trademarked. And the company contacts some people who use Kleenex generically to refer to tissue in order to correct them.
"We've worked very hard to keep 'Kleenex' from going the route of 'escalator' and 'aspirin,'" says Vicki Margolis, vice president and chief counsel, intellectual property and global marketing for Kimberly-Clark, which owns Kleenex. "If we lose the trademark, people can use it with sandpaper and call that a Kleenex."
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.
"In the mid- to late-1970s, we ran dangerously close to Xerox becoming 'genericized,'" says Barbara Basney, vice president of global advertising. "That prompted a lot of proactive action to protect our trademark."
Xerox has spent millions taking out ads aimed at educating so-called "influencers" like lawyers, journalists and entertainers about its brand name. A 2003 ad said: "When you use 'Xerox' the way you use 'aspirin,' we get a headache." More recently, a 2007 ad read: "If you use "Xerox" the way you use "zipper," our trademark could be left wide open."
While people still use "Xerox" generically — the Merriam-Webster dictionary lists the word as both a lower-case verb with the definition "to copy on a xerographic copier" and a trademarked noun — the brand says its campaign has been a success.
Xerox is still popular: It's ranked the 57th most valuable global brand, worth $6.4 billion, according to brand consultancy Interbrand. And perhaps most importantly, Xerox hasn't lost its trademark.
TAKING IT IN STRIDE
Sometimes companies embrace when their brands become common nouns.
Perhaps the best example of this is Google, a company created in 1998 when Alta Vista and Yahoo.com were the top online search engines. Google, which created a formula that returned more accurate results than its competitors, became so popular that people began saying "Google" to refer to a Web search, in general. Experts say Google has benefited from its name becoming a part of the lexicon.