Name Awards Professional Commentary on Company Names, Product Brands and Business Names

Generic Trademarks: Victims of their own Success

While there are plenty of brands that become household names, which provides the brand owners with huge marketing potential. However, some brands become so synonymous with the type of product with which they are associated that it results in the trademark becoming generic. Generic trademarks present a double-edged sword to product manufacturers. On the one hand, it means their brand has become so popular that it has entered the public lexicon to describe all products of a similar nature. However, it can also mean that the brand owners are no longer able to maintain
registration of the trademark. This allows rival companies to use it in their own marketing, which weakens the market dominance of the original brand.

Some trademarks have become so generic that few people know the original product description and assume the generic trademark is indeed the actual description. Escalator (originally registered to the [LINK:] Otis Elevator Company), Heroin (Registered to Bayer AG), and Zipper (B F Goodrich) were all registered trademarks, yet few people could name the actual product they describe (Heroin is medical diamorphine, elevator is a conveyor transport, and zipper is a zip fastener).


One field that seems to generate more generic brand names than any other is medicine. Not only did Bayer AG register of “Heroin” as a trademark, which led to the unfortunate association with illegal street drugs, but
also one of the company’s most successful products, an analgesic and painkiller consisting of acetylsalicylic acid, was registered as  “Aspirin” in 1949. However, such was the success of the drug, that all painkillers containing acetylsalicylic acid soon became known as aspirin. Because of this generic use, Bayer AG lost the ability to retain Aspirin as
a registered trademark. Now, any drug company that produces a product containing acetylsalicylic acid can claim that it contains “aspirin.”

More recently, the anti-impotence drug Viagra, registered as a trademark to pharmaceutical company [LINK:] Pfizer, has become so famous that Pfizer are struggling to maintain ownership of the trademark. All sorts of similar products, such as “herbal viagra,” make use of the name.  While Pfizer has the right to make legal challenges for such trademark infringements, appellants might claim that it has become generic, and if a court agrees with them, Pfizer would lose any rights it has left to the trademark.

Perhaps one example of when a generic trademark has done a company no harm is that of Coke. While Coca Cola is very rarely regarded as generic, the company’s other trademark, Coke, is often used to describe all cola-based drinks. Go into a restaurant or bar and ask for a Coke, and there is a good chance you will be given Pepsi or some other brand. However, Coca Cola remains one of the most powerful brands in the world, but this is probably due to Coke being one of two brands registered for the same product. Furthermore, Coca cola fiercely defend the Coke brand by actively contacting restaurants and bars to remind them that Coke means Coca Cola.

Fighting Genericism

Just as Coca Cola fights to defend its exclusive right to the term Coke, other brands fight hard to prevent their trademark becoming generic. Visa, one of the oldest and [LINK:] best credit cards known to people has recently [LINK:] won a landmark courtcase preventing another company using the term “eVisa” to describe an internet business. The credit card company successfully argued using eVisa diluted its trademark. The defendant in the nine-year long court case had argued that “visa” is a common descriptive word, which means to endorse something, and Visa couldn’t expect to own all uses of a word that is found in every dictionary.

However, judges ruled in favor of the credit card giants saying that only one product on the market is called Visa, and the introduction of another would indeed dilute the trademark. Credit cards are not the only area in the banking industry were you can find generic trademarks, either. In Europe, ATM machines are often referred to as cash points, but “Cash Point” is registered as a trademark to European banking group Lloyds.
[Ed: Of course, the popular British slang “Hole in the Wall” is really just that.. slang]
Hoover and Google
Some trademarks not only become nouns to describe all products of the same type, but also they can become verbs. “Hoover” is good example. Thanks to Hoover Company’s dominance in the UK vacuum cleaner market during the twentieth century, “hoover” not only became a term to describe all vacuum cleaners, but also the act of vacuuming itself. As a result, hoover is now in the Oxford English Dictionary as a proper noun, ordinary noun and a verb. Other examples of generic trademarks now commonly used as both nouns and verbs include: Photoshop, Sellotape, Super Glue, Tarmac, Xerox, and Google.

While Google still retains its registered trademark, many people use “google” and “googling” as verbs to describe web searches, which means they are at risk losing their rights. Because of this, the internet giant is going to great lengths to try to protect its registration of the trademark. It regularly contacts newspapers and other publications to
dissuade writers from using it as a verb. However, it has already entered both the Oxford English Dictionary and [LINK:] Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary as a verb, although in both case, it is described as using the “Google search engine,” thus recognizing the company’s association with it.


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