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The Secret Life of Language: How Trademarks Change the Words We Choose

Arts & Culture | April 1, 2015

In the world of brand names, Escalators—or, should I say, Escalator-brand power-driven stair systems—are a cautionary tale.

Theirs is not a unique story, either. Far from it. In vernacular English, Thermos has replaced vacuum flask, Dumpster has replaced trash receptacle, and Q-Tip has replaced cotton swab. The process, something wildly feared by many brands, is known as trademark erosion, or, more dramatically, as genericide.

“We all want our brands to be globally recognized, famous, to evoke a visceral response in consumers when they hear our trademark,” wrote Matthew Swyers, founder of The Trademark Company, an organization whose main goal is to stop genericide from happening. “But be warned, too much fame can, paradoxically, lead to the loss of your brand’s value.”

A trademark has officially genericized when the brand has become synonymous with the item itself. Today, few people will ask if you have a “Band-Aid-brand adhesive bandage.” They’ll ask for a Band-Aid, even if the brand of bandage that you pull out isn’t from Johnson & Johnson. Eventually, the product name may even supplant the name of the item, making it easy for other companies to build off the fame of the existing brand and market their product as an improved version of the original, older version, rather than as two competing brands on equal footing. Furthermore, after a trademark has eroded, intellectual property law—the legal protections that ensure people can gain financial and public recognition for the products or ideas they create—can no longer be enforced.

And, perhaps most frighteningly for the marketers, people may begin to associate negative things with a product even when the product has no relationship to a company.

“If we lose the trademark, people can [sneeze into] sandpaper and call that a Kleenex,” commented Vicki Margolis, vice president and chief intellectual property legal counsel for the company that owns Kleenex.

As a result, companies like Kleenex have begun building as many safeguards as they can against the shift towards this genericide. Though controlling the adoption and usage of words by the international public is about as easy as using a feather to direct a stampeding bull, entire organizations and societies have come up with a few ways to discreetly draw distinctions between their trademark and the product itself. Like the entire process of trademark erosion, these anti-erosion efforts are dealing with the nitty-gritty of mental associations, shaping the way we use language not only through the birth of new words but also through the study of how to keep these nouns behaving as adjectives.

One simple step is to simply stick the word “brand” after the trademark name itself. “We love Frisbee-brand flying disks!” a smiling actress might chirp in an ad by the Wham-O Manufacturing Corporation, the company that owns Frisbee. It sounds bizarre to those of us who believe “Frisbee” is the umbrella term for all such sports equipment, but it does help restructure the way we think about “flying disks.” Companies have also begun to insist that their trademark be followed by ™ or removed from regular text in the form of capital letters, italics, or quotations. These signals, they believe, will help prevent the public from integrating the trademarks into everyday language. Entire online databases, like this list of “American Propriety Eponyms,” classify and catalog genericized brands.

Trademark erosion represents an odd tug-of-war for power over the minds and attitudes of society, with the public on one side of the rope and companies on the other. The process begins with the company throwing out their product name into the ring, introducing something that we have never seen before. We are so inundated by images of this thing, all stamped with the same name, that we start using the brand as shorthand. The companies have essentially restructured the way our minds are working: their marketing has been so powerful that we no longer associate the object with its name when we see it. Instead, the first association is the brand of the company. And then, once that has happened, we change our language to reflect that.

After that, though, the company has very little power, either legally or socially, to get their trademark back, simply because it’s impossible to police people for using a word like ‘elevator’ when they don’t have any available substitutes on hand. Some of these words are so entrenched in language that, chances are, we didn’t even know they were once brand names; think of Styrofoam or hi-liter. We simply see them as words like any other, with origins in Latin or Greek or who knows what, born a long time before we were.

The fact that we believe this raises the question of who is determining how we think and, by extension, how we speak: them, or us. Are we simply receiving what they feed us, so much so that the absence of the word “brand” is enough of an error for us to fundamentally restructure our language? Or is it the other way around? It’s equally possible that we’re taking what the companies intend and adapting it for our own convenience, whether they like it or not.

All because we say Escalator instead of power-driven stair system.

Photo by Vincent Albanese (Creative Commons via Flickr).