CBCradio

  |
Bookmark and Share

Season Five.
"Genericide: When a Brand Name Becomes Generic"

Airs Saturday May 7th and Thursday May 12th, 2011.

This week, the Age of Persuasion looks at the concept of "Genericide" - when brand names become generic. If a product remains the number one brand for decades, it risks losing control of its trademark. Many pioneering brands suffered that fate. Just ask the board game "Monopoly," who lost the right to their own trademark recently.

As a result, other big brands are fighting to prevent genericide - like Kleenex and Band-Aid.

Their stories are fascinating.
Download Flash Player to view this content.


Listen to this episode as streaming audio (runs 26:30)


Subscribe to the podcasts by RSS or by iTunes.

All of the TV commercials and print elements we referred to in the episode, as well as some bonus materials, are below. Enjoy.



With those historic words, Apollo 13 was plunged into a do-or-die scenario.

It was supposed to be the third lunar landing, but when oxygen tank #2 exploded, it caused oxygen tank #1 to also fail. The command module's normal supply of electricity, light and water was lost, and they were 200,000 miles from earth.

The astronauts had to crawl from the Command Module into the Lunar module to survive. Except the Lunar Module wasn't built to sustain three men for four days. Carbon dioxide starting building up almost immediately. So they needed to figure out how to build a new filter that would fit into the round filter compartment, using only the materials they had on hand.

That led to maybe the most amazing scene in the Apollo 13 movie:



Ed Smylie, who led the actual NASA team who designed the temporary filter, said later he knew the problem was solvable when it was confirmed that duct tape was on the spacecraft.

"I felt like we were home free," he said in 2005.

Hard to believe that Apollo 13 was saved by duct tape.

Duct tape was developed by Johnson & Johnson, during World War Two, as a water-resistant sealing tape for ammunition cases. The story goes that soldiers used to call it "duck" tape because of the tape's ability to shed water, as in "Like water off a duck's back." Johnson & Johnson didn't bother to trademark the name, as it was the only product like it in existence.

That would be a mistake.

Since the 1940s, duct tape has been one of the most popular go-to products in hardware stores around the world. But the trademark opportunity was lost, and "duct tape" is now a generic term.

That loss of trademark has come to haunt many of the biggest brands in history. Zipper, escalator and refrigerator were all trademarks at one time. But now, they are just generic terms for entire product categories.

When a trademark is lost, it is called "genericide."

The term "genericide" is defined as when a brand or trademark has become so colloquial, so generic, it becomes synonymous with the entire category.

Therefore, the irony is that when a brand becomes "genericized" it is because the product or service has acquired market dominance or mind share. In other words, they have achieved the pinnacle of marketing goals. They are number one.

But then their vast popularity kills their trademark.

In 1983, the Supreme Court let stand a decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals which ruled the name "Monopoly" had been genericized.

Monopoly game.jpeg

They further stated the term "Monopoly" had become a common descriptive name for that type of board game and thus no longer afforded trademark rights to the manufacturer.

Shredded Wheat ad.jpg

When Henry Perky created shredded wheat back in 1893, he started a company called The Shredded Wheat Company.

When the patents expired in 1912, rival Kelloggs wasted no time in producing a shredded wheat product of their own. The Shredded Wheat company objected to Kelloggs' use of the words "shredded wheat" and sued.

But they had failed to get trademark protection for the name, because the Patent and Trademark office had concluded that the term was merely "descriptive," and when the trademark had elapsed, it had passed into public domain.

Kleenex ad #1.jpg

Kleenex is another brand that pioneered a category, and has run the danger of genericide every since. Almost no one says "pass me a facial tissue" these days, so Kleenex has been defending its trademark recently in a series of print ads:

Kleenex trademark ad.gif

Scotch tape was invented around 1930 by a young 3M engineer named Richard Drew. At that time, manufacturer 3M only made sandpaper. One day, Drew was at a car painting shop testing their product, when he noticed the painters having a hard time keeping a clean line where two-toned colours met. He was inspired to invent a tape that would help the painters.

Scotch Tape became a household staple during the Depression as people learned to make simple household repairs with it.

Kleenex dispensers.jpg

In 1939, 3M welcomed the "snail" - its iconic, handheld tape dispenser. Look at any classic Scotch Tape dispenser from the side, and it looks exactly like a snail.

Kleenex snail.jpg>

In the 1950s, 3M decided to advertise Scotch Tape on that new fangled medium called television, and created a character called "Scotty McTape."



To this day, Scotch Tape is so dominant, it has become the generic name for all sticky household tape.

Except in Scotland. Where they don't know what "Scotch Tape" is.

Heroin bottle.jpg

Until 1924, you could buy Heroin in stores. There was heroin cough syrup, heroin lozenges and heroin tablets.

The most amazing thing was that "Heroin" was a trademark of Bayer. Discovered by a British chemist in 1874, heroin was mass produced by German pharmaceutical company Bayer 14 years later.

The name "Heroin" was inspired by the "heroic" fearlessness sensation users felt after using it. Pharmacists marketed heroin as an excellent pain killer, and a cure for many respiratory ailments.

In 1898, it was marketed as a non-addictive morphine substitute and cough suppressant. By 1902, heroin accounted for roughly five percent of Bayer's net profits. But later that year, French and American researchers were reporting cases of heroin addiction. It didn't surprise anyone when Bayer let their heroin trademark expire.

Interestingly, Bayer launched another drug around the same time, called Aspirin. It was a painkiller without any undesirable side effects, and when the heroin bubble burst, Aspirin had more than filled the gap for Bayer.

But maybe the most ironic fact of all is that Aspirin would later, itself, become genericized.

Bayer Aspirin bottle.jpg

Way back in the winter of 1948, a woman named Katy Daley was having trouble digging sand out of her frozen front yard. She was using the sand as cat box filler. So she knocked on her neighbour Edward Lowe's door:

Edward Lowe.jpg

He suggested she try a product of his called Fuller's Earth. It comprised of kiln-dried clay balls.

She loved it, or should we say, her cat loved it. Ed Lowe had a hunch there must be more cat lovers out there with the same problem, so he filled ten brown paper bags with five pounds of the clay each, and scribbled a name on them.

The name... was Kitty Litter.

He tried to sell them to pet stores, but no one was interested. So he just told the stores to give them away for free. But cat owners loved the new product, and soon there was a big demand for Lowe's litter:

Kitty Litter bag.jpg

Soon, Ed Lowe was building a real business around his Kitty Litter, and founded Edward Lowe Industries.

Over the years, competitors emerged, but Ed Lowe remained the number one brand for Kitty Litter.

Fifty years after filling his first bag, Ed Lowe sold his company for $200 million dollars.

Today, the cat box filler is a billion dollar industry. And like Kleenex, the company tries to protect its valuable trademark, even though it can be argued that Kitty Litter has become the defacto term for the entire cat box filler category.

Even the dictionary definition of litter now says "An absorbent material, such as granulated clay, for covering the floor of an animal's excretory box."

And all because Ed Lowe was a pioneer.

He was number one in number two.

bandaid_box1.jpg

Back in 1920, Earle Dickson hit on the idea of preparing ready-made bandages by cutting up pieces of adhesive tape and cotton gauze. He took his idea to his boss at Johnson & Johnson, and in less than a year, the Band-Aid brand was born.

As with most pioneering brands, the term "Band Aid" became generic, as it was the dominant brand in the category for so long. But Band-Aid was very aware of the genericide it was flirting with, and they have continuously tackled the problem with advertising.

Band Aids have had a famous jingle for decades, written by none other than Barry Manilow. Here's a clip of him talking about how writing jingles taught him how to write hit songs:



Band-Aids' story is maybe the most symbolic of all pioneering brands struggling to protect their trademarks.

Because in order to prevent genericide, it all comes down to making sure the name sticks...

  •