Weird Words – how brand names become generic

retro-1291608_960_720I have a Numatic Hetty HET200 Vacuum Cleaner. Do I call it that? No. It’s a hoover.

When I dig it out, I don’t “vacuum” the flat. I “hoover” the flat. “Hoover” is a noun and a verb that has long been synonymous with vacuuming and vacuum cleaner, yet the word actually originates from the Hoover Company. Hoover was the top seller of vacuum cleaners in the early 20th century in the UK, so pretty soon everybody was “hoovering” their houses with their Hoover vacuum cleaners.

When Hoover lost its dominance and other vacuum brands became popular, the name stuck. It turned into a genericised trademark, which is a trademark or brand name that becomes the common name for a whole class of products or services.

It sometimes means that the intellectual property in the trademark is lost and competitors are able to use the popular name to sell their own products.

Sellotape is another example. Initially a specific brand of adhesive tape in the UK, “sellotape” is now a genericised trademark that people use to describe all brands of sticky tape. “Velcro” is a company name, but people use “velcro” to refer to the hook and loop fastener the company developed, as well as all similar fasteners made by other companies.

Some names, like sellotape, velcro and hoover, do maintain legal protection in certain countries. So even though we’re using these names generically, you generally don’t see competitors using them.

However, some trademarks lose their protection and status completely. Take “trampoline” for example. This was originally a trademark of the Griswold-Nissen Trampoline and Tumbling Company, and the generic name for the recreational device they invented was a “rebound tumbler”. Now it’s used by all companies everywhere who produce trampolines.

Is it a good thing? Well, no. Initially it means a brand is so prevalent in its industry that it becomes absorbed into the language, so conceptually it’s a huge compliment to the company making the product. Practically however, it tends to have a negative effect on the company’s business, diluting their brand value and eradicating their USPs. Their product effectively becomes the same as everything else.

This is why companies fight against the genericisation of their brands. For example, Nintendo managed to successfully replace the excessive use of its name with the generic “games console”. Google has been worried about the increasing use of the terms “googling” and “googled” but has managed to maintain its association with the terms. Generally when people use them, they’re referring specifically to using the Google search engine to search for something.

As a freelance copywriter, I have to be aware of genericised trademarks and their legal implications. The onus is on my clients to know whether they are allowed to use a genericised trademark, but it’s always good to check.

For instance, while Numatic do not officially call any of their vacuum cleaners “hoovers”, I’ve just found that they have a Google ad for “Henry Hoovers”. This is blatantly designed to take advantage of the genericised trademark and the fact that most people will be searching for hoovers. No doubt they will have done their research to check that they’re allowed to do this, which I’m presuming they are — otherwise a lawsuit from the Hoover Company could be headed their way!


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