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When Marketing Works Too Well

Monday, December 27, 2010, 20:57 EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

Registered trademark symbolMy last post (about Kodachrome film) got me thinking about the use of trademarked brand names and, specifically, how much it must have cost Paul Simon for the right to use the brands Kodachrome and Nikon in his song. Corporations develop brand visibility through trademarked names and symbols, and the most successful trademarks eventually allow a product to essentially sell itself. That’s why trademark holders defend their rights so vigorously. Unfortunately, the popularity of a branded product causes the brand name to fall into common usage to describe the generic product, and trademark protection becomes difficult.

Some product names have been in common usage for so long that most of us don’t even realize that they were once trademarked names. Aspirin, for example, was originally a trademarked brand of Bayer’s synthetic acetylsalicylic acid tablets and is still recognized as a protected trademarked in many countries (though not in the U.S.) Likewise, escalator was once a brand name for the original moving staircase but has since lost its protected status. Other common usages of brand names are generational and no longer widely used, such as my grandmother’s referring to a refrigerator of any brand as a Frigidaire.

Today there are several trademarked names I can think of that many people use generically, to the consternation of their trademark holders:

  • ChapStick® (lip balm)
  • Coke® (cola)
  • Google® (internet search)
  • iPod® (portable mp3 player)
  • Kleenex® (tissue)
  • Motrin® (ibuprofen)
  • Post-It® (sticky note)
  • Sharpie® (permanent marker)
  • Vaseline® (petroleum jelly)
  • Q-tips® (cotton swabs)
  • Wite-Out® (correction fluid)
  • Xerox® (photocopy)

There are others I can’t recall, and many I’m not even aware of from other countries. That’s the price of having a product so popular and a name or symbol so catchy that, in many people’s eyes, the trademark is the item.

(Obviously, I have no interest in offending the companies who own the rights to the brand names listed above, hence the registered trademark symbols. As far as I’m concerned, if someone pays good money to come up with a brand identity, market it, and defend it, then they have the right to prevent it from being misused.)

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Categories: business & economics
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