When your business becomes a verb

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I was inspired by one of Junko’s tweets to think about when a brand becomes a verb. Back when I was in college studying marketing one of the things that we came across was the challenge of extreme brand love where the product becomes such a part of the customers life that it becomes a verb.

Examples of this include:

  • Aspirin – which is actually a trademark of drug company Bayer
  • Biro – in British and Irish English meaning a ballpoint pen named after the Biro pen company who pioneered ballpoint pens
  • Hoover – to use a vacuum cleaner, named after white goods brand
  • Thermos – a vacuum flask for keeping food and drink warm
  • Tipp-Ex – correction fluid which was popular for covering up writing mistakes, typing errors and painting your name on your pencil case
  • Sellotape – clear sticky tape for packaging purposes

This phenomena creates a commercial | legal paradox. Where the brand is so loved that it becomes the generic verb for the whole product category that it dominates in terms of mind share (if not market share) then the intellectual property rights of the brand mark is at risk.

It was a measure of the uphill task that we faced when I worked at Yahoo! that Google has become genericised for web search that the company was having to provide legal guidance to bloggers and the media.

Ian Rogers who at the time worked at Yahoo! Music in the US came up with an idea that I thought could fly “Yahoo! that bitch“, it caught the ethos of the Yahoo! brand being fun and irreverant and paired with the utility of search far better than anything else I can think of .

Unfortunately it was never given serious thought, not even potty-mouth Carol Bartz would have signed off on it if we are honest about it – and this was the time of Terry Semel as CEO.

Junko’s tweet reminded of Microsoft’s desperate efforts to make ‘Bing it’ a verb for search. I realised that even if they got all the search market to themselves ‘Bing it’ would still feel uncomfortable for me to use. It feels wrong in the way you say it. It just doesn’t sing.

What’s more there was prior evidence that it wouldn’t work. Back in 2006 Samsung launched an MP3 player to go up against the iPod called Zing and tried to create that brand as verb for cacooning yourself in music to separate you from your surroundings. The fact that this is probably new to you gives you an idea of how successful it was.

If your brand is going to achieve world domination then it has to be phonetically right as well. Thinking about it, it is something that Microsoft has had a problem with for years, the exception to the rule probably being MSN as a verb for instant messaging which apes the way ICQ and AIM where used in a similar manner depending on your social group.

Think I am wrong? Well think about the way PC compatible was used in most cases instead of Windows compatible or Windows PC compatible in common speech. You could argue that it was because of Microsoft’s domination of that sector, but I would also add that it was because Windows as a word doesn’t sing.

Does your brand sing? Run it past friends and family as a verb, is it used internally as a verb? If not, then your brand won’t suffer the legal issues around genericisation, but also won’t go on to dominate mind share, even it if gets market share.