Will your brand suffer genericide?
A view from Sue Unerman

Will your brand suffer genericide?

Driving word of mouth is a great ambition, but it can go too far.

I have a packet of "repositional notes" on my desk. You’d probably recognise them as Post-it notes. I will probably use them in the same way as I would with genuine Post-it notes, just as I will "hoover" my carpet with a Henry and chuck a "flying disc" in the park instead of a Frisbee.

Generating word of mouth is an ambition for many brands. Who wouldn’t want to become a household name? The myth-busting Ehrenberg-Bass Institute's best-practice marketing principles include building and refreshing "memory structures" or "associations that make the brand easy to notice and easy to buy". In the words of Slim Shady: be careful what you wish for.

Overuse of the brand name by the public may lead to "genericide": becoming the generic in your category to the extent that people don’t think there’s any point in seeking out the original. There are, of course, lawsuits that can be put in play for infringement of copyright and businesses that seek out and stamp out improper use of trademarks online.

But the real killer is the misuse of your brand name by the general public. Google has a set of "rules of proper usage" and, in the UK, it is pretty unusual to search online at the moment using a different engine. If search takes off in other social media channels, the search giant might worry about people "googling" in other channels.

Simon Tulett comments that Twitter raised concern about brand genericide in its initial public offering, noting that "there is a risk that the word 'Tweet' could become so commonly used that it becomes synonymous with any short comment posted publicly on the internet and, if this happens, we could lose protection of this trademark".

Brands exist to be noticed. They succeed when they shortcut the decision-making process to become the default choice for the category. Exclusivity and distinctiveness are crucial to sustained competitive success. Once, Yo-Yo, Thermos and Escalator were brands in their own right. I’m not sure now what I’d even call a small round object that you can pump up and down on a string if I couldn’t call it a yo-yo.

Investment in brand fame is important, but fame alone is not enough. You need sustained investment in distinctive brand behaviour and continued development of your products to swerve the genericide trap.

Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom 
@sueu

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