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Google It, Xerox It, FedEx It, Post-It: How Story Can Help Prevent Brand “Genericide”

By Zachary Vickers

Barry Manilow is known for chart-topping hits like “Looks Like We Made It,” but few may realize that many brand jingles we still can’t get out of our heads were also written by Manilow, such as “I’m stuck on Band-Aid, ‘cause Band-Aid’s stuck on me…” However, some of us might be singing a slightly different lyric: “I’m stuck on Band-Aid brand, ‘cause Band-Aid’s stuck on me…” At some point, Johnson & Johnson’s legal department advised the company to add the word “brand” in order to differentiate itself from…itself.

The issue Band-Aid faced was that its popularity had made its name too household. Consumers were calling every bandage on their pharmacy’s shelf a Band-Aid, even if it wasn’t the one manufactured by Johnson & Johnson. Similarly, Xerox ran campaigns to dissuade the use of “Xerox” as a verb and encourage the use of “photocopy” instead. But why? Doesn’t every company want their brand name to become so ubiquitous?

“The fear was that if ‘to xerox something’ became another way of saying, ‘to photocopy something,’ the term would end up defining not what Xerox is (a company that makes a distinctive brand of copiers), but what Xerox’s products do (make photocopies),” said Noam Cohen in a New York Times article. “In the process, the difference between Xerox and its competitors would begin to melt away.”

Every brand wants to be the best, the leader of their respective industry. Brands dedicate large amounts of time and budget to build brand awareness and become a household name. However, total brand dominance can come at a cost, and actually diminish reputation.

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.”

Over the years, some brands, once leaders, have become shells of their former selves, lost in a saturated market now categorized by their very name, becoming just another brand substitutable with their competitors.

Some have become so genericized that you might be surprised to discover they aren’t just a category, but also a brand: Aspirin, Kerosene, Trampoline, Thermos, Scotch Tape, Jacuzzi, Videotape, Dumpster, and Escalator — a product named after a portmanteau that marries the Latin word for steps (scala) with “Elevator.” In 1950, the Otis Elevator Company lost its registered trademark after the U.S. Patent Office ruled the term had become a general term for a moving stairway — so much so that the Otis Elevator Company had been using escalator as a generic descriptive term on its own patents.

It’s a real struggle that many companies face, and a fine balance — to become popular, relevant, and successful without becoming generic and therefore irrelevant, forgettable, and tractionless in the market.

However, it’s not impossible to walk that tightrope. If a company tells a compelling brand story that speaks clearly and resonantly to the emotions of consumers, it will not only help to differentiate from the competition, but will root the company’s unique significance in something more than features, benefits, and brand name.

Today, Google is the most widely used search engine with over 3 billion online searches on a daily basis, and is perceived by users to be the best for simplicity, ease, reliable and fast-loading page results, and the organization of those results based on relevancy to the search. Google also shows fewer ads than competitors, like Bing and Yahoo, and the ads they do show are generally curated to each user’s individual interests.

And yet, we know well that today nobody ever searches for information, they “google” it (to the extent that the Oxford English and Merriam-Webster Collegiate dictionaries both added it to their editions in 2006). So, how did Google manage to avoid falling victim to genericide?

Google invested in a story that placed its users — their hero — at the center.

A great illustration of Google’s brand story can be found in their 2013 commercial, in which two childhood best friends, separated due to the 1947 India-Pakistan partition, reunite. Mr. Mehra’s granddaughter, after listening to her grandfather poignantly reminisce about Yusef, tracks him down with a little detective work via several Google searches. Additional “googles” for Indian visa requirements and flight schedules all inevitably lead to Yusef appearing at Mr. Mehra’s doorstep where the two embrace after six decades.

It’s the kind of commercial that makes our own searches like “Yanny Laurel” and “Grumpy Cat Gifs” and “Do fidget spinners fidget or spin?” seem almost shameful. Why? Because while Google’s search engine is tuned to access any information or curiosity, what it really does is make anything — even the seemingly impossible — possible.

Google never once mentions a feature or benefit of their search engine’s performance in the commercial — rather, they invested in an emotional micro-narrative that reiterates their brand story: one that empowers users to take advantage of the world’s information by presenting it to them in an accessible and organized manner in service of what matters most to them.

Google avoids anchoring their household brand in their product and instead invests in a compelling story, and it is this story that keeps them from succumbing to genericide. While other comparable, quality search engines are readily available — ones that users “google” information on — none of these competitors can trademark the emotional resonance that Google’s brand has captured. Therefore, Google remains a leader — generic yet different.

“Branding is…rooted in establishing trust with your customers through a promise,” said John Watton on Adobe’s blog. Or, as Al Ries puts it in AdAge, “Everything in life is ‘perceptions.’ There are no superior products. There are only superior perceptions in consumers’ minds.

FedEx is another great example of a company that has remained a dominant force in its industry without succumbing to genericide. While the company is also a colloquialism, a verb — you don’t ship a package, you have it FedExed — FedEx has not hitched its brand wagon to its fast and convenient products and services. Rather, the company speaks to the emotions of their hero, and shows how FedEx empowers its customers through possibility.

FedEx’s latest commercial, “What’s Inside?” shows people receiving FedEx packages while a voiceover says, “What’s inside? A moment of joy. A source of inspiration. An act of kindness…What will it bring? An old friend? A new beginning? Some welcome relief? Or a cause for celebration. The help you’ve been looking for.”

The most powerful aspect of the commercial is when the point of view assumes the unknown object, and as each box opens we see the face of each individual. “What’s inside?” FedEx asks. Possibilities. It’s “What [FedEx] deliver[s] by delivering.”

FedEx is the vehicle —literally — for whatever a person or company needs to experience possibility. How fast the package arrived, the convenience of the shipping process, are both irrelevant to the larger story. What’s actually inside each box is never shown because it doesn’t matter to FedEx. It only matters to FedEx to the extent that whatever it is matters to their customers, and that’s enough for them (and us).

Compare this, briefly, to the UPS Store’s recent commercial, in which a UPS Store employee attends a speed dating event where she spends the entire session (and day) rattling off all of the many services UPS does beyond shipping. It’s a commercial solely on features and benefits, and while playful in tone, it neither transcends emotionally, nor explains why these services matter to customers and how they can empower possibility.

The end of the UPS commercial reflects its (lack of) resonance — the employee is left alone at a table, now night, rattling off the company’s services to nobody. While UPS is not at risk of becoming genericized, this failure to align their marketing with a core story does nothing to differentiate them from the rest of the shipping and business services industry.

Every company wants their name associated with “the best” of any given product or service. But heavy is the head that wears the brand crown — and dominance can also lead to irrelevance by becoming overly household and an umbrella term for every product or service in their respective industry. In order to combat “genericide,” a company should invest in a compelling story so that their name — if generalized into a substitute or synonym for a product or service — is associated with a powerful emotional narrative, and therefore different.

Zachary Vickers is an associate at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, Woden can help. Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at connect@wodenworks.com to discuss how we can help tell your story.