Tuesday, February 13, 2007

I Was Short on Time & Ideas...

[ed. note: long day, no new news, so I thought I'd take the opportunity to rehash a topic that is near and dear to my heart - the brand name as generic.]

How many times have you asked someone to hand you a Kleenex?

Did you really mean a Kimberly-Clark Corporation brand of facial tissue, or did you just mean a tissue of any brand? Chances are you meant a facial tissue of any brand.

This is the nature of a product name becoming the generic name; or, to make it a little clearer, an actual trademarked brand name comes to represent the entire spectrum of that one product, no matter who makes the product.

Of course, this begs the question how does a trademark name become a generic? I believe one of two things (or both) must happen, first to market or dominate marketing/market share. For the first of these two things, I will use Sony's Walkman as the demonstrator.

The invention was born from a tweaked Pressman (Sony's monaural portable cassette recorder) and a pair of headphones.

Organizational changes were taking place at Sony in 1979 and the tape recorder division was pressed to market something soon, or risk consolidation. They came up with a small cassette player capable of stereo playback. So, Sony was first to market with the product, thus the name becomes synonymous with the product, and that is the first rule of brand names becoming generics. But sometimes first to market is not what makes the name a generic. For an example of this, I will use Kleenex.

Contrary to what the Kimberly-Clark Company would have you believe, Kleenex is not the first facial tissue. Scott Paper Company was first to market in 1907, seventeen years before the Kleenex brand (as an interesting side note, Kimberly Clark purchased Scott Paper Company in 1997).

So why don't we say hand me a Sani-Towel (the Scott tissue name)? Marketing, and timing, is everything.

In 1907, the height of the Victorian Age, you simply did not run magazine/newspaper ads extolling the virtues of so personal a thing as personal hygiene. Ah, how social mores change in only seventeen years.

By 1924, it was acceptable to talk about personal hygiene in public. Add to that Kleenex's convenient packaging, the self dispensing box (the Sani-Towel came on a roll and was a bit rougher…think paper towel), and their clever marketing strategy of using movie stars to promote the products through magazine ads and placing their pictures on the boxes. All this conspired to make Kleenex the generic name of facial tissues.

Of course, now you're asking, "how prevalent is brand-name-as-generic?"

I'm glad you asked. Here is a list of brand names used as generics – Play-doh, Plexiglas, Coke, Xerox, FedEx, Super Glue, Magic Marker, Hi-Liter, Post-its, Liquid Paper, Chapstick, Clorox, Bandaid, Scotch Tape, Brillo Pad, Champagne, Q-Tips, Drano, Crayola Crayon. I'm sure the list goes on, but those are the one that come to mind. Compiling this list was rather tough because sometimes you don't realize that the name you thought was generic is actually a brand name; that is how ubiquitous the brand-name-as-generic can be.

The question being begged now is, "Surely this isn't just a 20th century phenomenon…" No, I don't think so. The problem in researching this phenomenon in the 18th and 19th centuries is that the once the use of a class or type of product dies out, the name dies with it. I think perhaps that some of the names listed in the last paragraph are in danger of this happening in the 21st century. As examples, I'll use the Xerox and Liquid Paper brand names.

The name Xerox, the company that invented the copying machine (a "first to market" brand name), has come to mean "a copy of something;" as in, "I need this report Xeroxed so I can hand it out at the meeting." The person uttering this line doesn't mean he wants copies made specifically on a Xerox machine; he/she just means that they need to make copies.

But, this nomenclature is in danger of going the way of the word 'icebox' because of the computer age, i.e., email, PDFs, and multiple print-job printers. The same is true for Liquid Paper.

Liquid Paper is the brand name for typewriter correction fluid. Invented in 1951 by secretary Bette Nesmith because she had learned to type on a manual typewriter and had to make the move to electric typewriters.

The difference in pressure required for electrics as opposed to manuals caused her to make many mistakes. Rather than re-typing the whole document, she put white tempura paint in a nail polish bottle and Liquid Paper was born. Again, the computer age is to blame; the use of word processing computer programs (eliminating the need to cover something up) is killing off the Liquid Paper name-as-generic.

The brand-name-as-generic is a double-edged sword.

A company will spend millions of dollars on advertising in order to make their product a household name. But when that name becomes so household that it represents the generic, they must redouble their efforts – and advertising funds – to make the brand stand out so that when the average consumer is at the store they don't think, "We're almost out of Kleenex," and they pick up the no-name store brand.

[ed. note 2: how many name brands as generics can you think of?]


Blogger radioactive girl said...

I actually do call tissue "tissue". It drives my kids and husband bonkers and they always ask why I don't just say "kleenex". Have you read the book The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell? It's all about how some things spread like wildfire while others don't "stick".

2/14/2007 9:45 AM  
Blogger creative-type dad said...

Hamburger- I think that one is owned by the Hamburglar and his Fry Guy friends

2/14/2007 11:58 AM  
Blogger Becky said...

Tag, you're it. Tell Blogland five odd things about yourself.

Happy Valentine's Day!

2/14/2007 2:40 PM  
Blogger Treggles said...

Some of ours are different in the UK. Your liquid paper is always "Tippex" here (or occasionally "Snopake" among slightly oder folk.) Your Plexiglass is out "Perspex". I think most people here say tissue rathere than a brandname, but virtually everyone Hoovers rather than vacuuming.

2/16/2007 5:47 PM  
Anonymous Jesse H said...

What kind of Coke do you want? Um, I'll take a Dr. Pepper.

8/02/2010 10:58 AM  

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