Genericization – Good or Bad?

“Let’s have a Coke.” “Do you have a Band-aid with you?” “I got this article Xeroxed.” We do not think twice about using these brand names in our normal conversation. We say “Coke” but we may actually drink a “Pepsi” or a “Thums Up”. When we say “Band-aid”, what we want is an adhesive bandage. Everyone interprets “Xerox” as photocopy.

Knowingly or unknowingly, certain brand names have cropped into our everyday jargon. They have become common terms that we use in our regular communication and some even appear in the Oxford dictionary such as hoover, thermos, spandex etc. These brands have overtaken the market in such a way that now you find it more handy to use the brand name instead of the generic product name. This is known as “brand genericide”. As a matter of fact, you may not be aware of the generic name in many cases. You can try the Brand Names quiz in “” to evaluate yourself.

Do you know that:

  • “Escalator” is manufactured by Otis and the generic name is “conveyor transport device” or “moving stairway”?
  • “Frisbee” is a product of Wham-O Manufacturing Corporation and the generic name is “flying saucer and sport”?
  • “Ping Pong” represents the sport “table tennis” and is a brand of Parker Brothers?
  • “Post-it” is actually an “adhesive note pad” produced by 3M?
  • “Zipper” is produced by Universal Fastener Company and the generic name is “Separable fastener”?

Seldom do we use the generic names for these products. You find it easier to say “Google it” than to say “do a web search”.

How does this sort of phenomenon take place? Consider what would be your response to each of the following three choices:

  • Is it an invention or innovation?
  • Is the generic use an outcome of viral use or marketing?
  • Is it creating or dominating a category?

If your response is either “invention” or “viral use” or “creating a category” then your brand is a prime candidate for genericization.

Looking at it from the legal angle, there are two reasons when a company can lose its brand trademark. a.) A company’s patent expires, b.) A company sues another company for using its name and loses the lawsuit, and as a consequence the court deems the brand to be generic. However, there is nothing any company can do if the general public uses a common product or service name in their everyday language, despite legal trademarks etc.

“Over the last 15 years we’ve developed our brand into a global brand and we wanted our giving to follow suit.” Tommy Hilfiger

Appears to be a great thing for the particular products and maybe you are wondering how to get to this situation with your product. Hold on to your horses, it may not be desirable as many companies have found out. Some companies may find this to be a frightening prospect. You spend years of effort and budgets in building your brand only to find that it has become a common term and your brand loses its identity. The irony is that much of the effort in promoting your product was to make it a household name. You lose control over the name and your product becomes meaningless.

Companies such as Xerox, Google and Johnson & Johnson (Band-aid) are putting in a lot of effort in “brand survival” by discouraging the generic use of their brands and educating the public on the difference between the brand name and the generic name. Here is an example of what can go wrong. Hormel Foods Corp produces canned/smoked ham to which they had given the name “Spam”. Today, “Spam” evokes a very negative reaction from netizens.

“Brand is not a product, that’s for sure; it’s not one item. It’s an idea, it’s a theory, it’s a meaning, it’s how you carry yourself. It’s aspirational, it’s inspirational.” Kevin Plank

Falling into the brand genericide syndrome may not be altogether bad. Look at Band-aid, it commands a major share of the Sticking plasters/adhesive bandages market. When you use the name band-aid at a chemist shop, there is a 90% chance you will be given Johnson & Johnson’s “Band-aid” and not Dettol Plasters or Handyplast. Three products of Sony have been genericized – Walkman, Memory stick and Jumbotron. However, these products have not been adversely affected and Sony is still considered a world-class leader in consumer electronics. Neither Microsoft nor PowerPoint has lost any mileage from the genericization of its popular slide show presentation program. When people want to purchase an MP3 player, they will most probably ask for an iPod and first evaluate Apple’s iPod before turning to other brands.

other brands.
To avoid your brand becoming genericized, keep a keen watch on the market and take immediate action when things move in the wrong direction. You may follow the guidelines below:

  1. Be aware of your trademark rights.
  1. Educate the public and other businesses on the appropriate brand and trademark use related to your product.
  1. Stop other businesses from using your brand name. If required, take legal recourse.
  1. Provide a description of the product or service by using a generic term after your trademark.
  1. Be careful not to use your brand name in a generic fashion, even in publications or in any advertising medium

“You may name a bronze statue ‘Liberty,’ or a painted figure in a city hall ‘Commerce,’ or a marble form in a temple ‘Athene’ or ‘Venus;’ but what is really there is only a representation of a single woman.” George Edward Woodberry

As Woodberry said a representation of womanhood does not change whether you call a female statue ‘Liberty’, ‘Commerce’, ‘Athena’ or ‘Venus’. The name should be appropriate in whatever language. This brings me to another issue you should watch out for. When you try to market your brand/product in another country you must be extremely cautious about the message that is being conveyed when translating the brand name. For example, C&C Group a Dublin-based beverage distributor decided to launch its popular brand of golden whiskey liqueur, “Irish Mist”, in Germany. The name “Irish Mist” conjures up a picture of a field drenched in morning dew. Regrettably, it did not take off. The reason being, in German “mist” translates to “manure” and a depiction of a field covered in manure did not appeal to the Germans. Enunciation should also be looked at as was very well demonstrated by what happened with “Mondelez”, the snack division of Kraft Foods. There was nothing wrong with the name or the spelling and both were globally accepted. Now here was the catch, it was pronounced as “mohn-dah-LEEZ”, which in Russian sounded like a very vulgar word.

“As an entrepreneur, one of the biggest challenges you will face will be building your brand. The ultimate goal is to set your company and your brand apart from the crowd. If you form a strategy without doing the research, your brand will barely float – and at the speed industries move at today, brands sink fast.” Ryan Holmes

I will not categorically say genericization is either good or bad. If your brand becomes genericized, it may cost you like Hormel Foods Corp or your brand may become a benchmark like Sony. However, if you want to avoid genericization, you may take appropriate measures well in advance.


Alyson Shontell. 20 Brands So Powerful You Say Them Every Day. 2010.
Steve Tobak. 20 Brand Names You Don’t Realize Are Brand Names. 2010.
Nora D. Richardson. Brand Genericide: When Brand Names Become Commonplace. 2012.
Danielle Schlanger and Kim Bhasin. 24 Trademarked Brands That Everyone Uses As Generic Names. 2012.
Mary Beth Quirk. 15 Product Trademarks That Have Become Victims Of Genericization. 2014.
Erik Devaney. What’s in a Name? What 6 Popular Brands Are Called Across the Globe. 2014.