Why brands fear getting verbed

23 Feb 2016 0
Why brands fear getting verbed

Photoshop is one of the world’s most successful trademarks. How do we know? Because it’s one of a tiny number that have received a very special honour: they’ve been verbed.

Only a select few trademarks become verbs. You can google stuff, you can hoover your floor (at least you can in Britain), and there was a time when you could xerox things, although those days may now have passed.

Other brands have tried to get themselves verbed, including Argos and, in an adorable attempt to match Google, Microsoft’s Bing, but to no avail.

Successfully becoming a verb is surely the best thing that can ever happen to a brand. You’ve become part of the language. You’re immortal. You’ve won!

But not all brands see it that way.

The problem is, they’re terrified that getting verbed means their trademark will become generic. In other words, people will start talking about “photoshopping” when they’re actually using a competitor’s software, just as people talk about “hoovering” when the vacuum cleaner in question is a Dyson or a Samsung, or “velcroing” when they’re really using an unbranded hook-and-loop fastening product (don’t get Velcro started on that topic).

If that happens, you’ve lost the advantage that your brand gave you over your rivals. That’s bad enough, but what really puts the willies up brand owners is the prospect of the trademark being cancelled completely – which can happen if companies start using their own trademark in a generic sense, or fail to correct others who do so. The word “Escalator”, for instance, was once a trademark of the Otis Elevator Company, but they lost it in the 1950s. The judge argued that they had used it in their own advertising to talk generally about moving staircases. Whoops.

As one expert in language and law puts it in this blog post, “The goal of every trademark holder is to make his trademark ubiquitous but to prevent it from becoming generic.”

That’s a pretty thin line to tread.

Adobe publishes guidelines for third parties who use its trademarks – Photoshop in particular – aimed at stopping the well-known brand going the way of the escalator. These include a series of bizarre claims about trademarks. Trademarks are not nouns, Adobe says. Nor are they verbs. And they must never be used as slang terms (for example “I like photoshopping”).

In fact, every time someone mentions Photoshop, Adobe wants them to say “Adobe Photoshop software”. Really?

To be fair, this advice is for Adobe’s partners whom it is trusting with its trademark names and logos, and over whom it holds some sway. As for the rest of us, I suspect the company knows perfectly well that we’re not about to start pointing at ads in magazines and saying, “That photograph has blatantly been enhanced using Adobe Photoshop software.”

Trademark owners should remember that it’s a wonderful, priceless thing when customers pick up a brand and make it their own.

The alternative is that people don’t talk about your brand at all. And that has to be worse.

The Otis Escalator photo is from Max Wheeler via Flickr

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