Success is a Cleft Stick

Many people presume that a company that has its name enter into common usage would think that it had died and gone to heaven.

To a certain extent this is true, as brand recognition is a key component of advertising and promotional campaigns. However, there is a point at which common use of a company’s name can be come a liability.

Problems in this area fall into three categories – trademark protection, product protection and brandname protection.

There have been some classic cases of trademark protection where large companies have stomped on small kiwi enterprises for blatant or unintentional trademark infringement. McDonald’s have had a “wee chat” with various outfits that have used variations of their logo, including golden arches, W-shapes and others.

Product protection has become a world-wide issue as groups of producers move to protect the use of product names such as champagne, port, sherry, kiwifruit (we really messed that one up!) and many others. It was a long struggle, especially for sherry, which had become a pseudonym for any fortified wine from proper jerez-style aperitifs to rotgut plonk that was supplied in “bring your own flagon” establishments.

The latest battle for product protection is being fought amongst cheesemakers over the use of such names (styles) as brie, camembert and parmesan. This is going to be a bloody battle involving vat warfare, volleys of curds and whey and hand-to-hand combat with cheese knives instead of bayonets.

The most obvious aspect of brandname protection is when a company finds its registered name being used by another concern. Harrod’s had a go at a family business of the same name here a few years ago, and seems to have reached some form of settlement. The stoush over the name of the Blackball Hilton pub was probably a little more straightforward, but many kiwis still feel that it was just a clever pun rather than a blatant breach of a brandname.

Xerox Corporation faced a different problem in the 1970s when, having grown to dominate the photocopier industry, its name became both a verb and a noun. “I’ll xerox it for you” became the equivalent of “I’ll photocopy it for you,” as did “I’ve got a xerox of it here” for “I’ve got a photocopy of it here.”

The Hoover vacuum cleaner seems to have lent its name to the act of cleaning carpets in the United Kingdom, and “doing the hoovering” was a common expression when I lived there in the 1980s. To a certain extent Electrolux got caught in its major markets as many of us have heard of “luxing the carpets.”

Oddly, some of the better-known vacuum cleaners from 1960s New Zealand didn’t manage to achieve this level of recognition. I’ve never heard the expression “I’ll morphy richards the mats” or “Did you goblin ace the dining room?” This is a pity, as both brands enjoyed good market share during the mid-twentieth century, and Goblin Ace vacuum cleaners had been around since at least the 1930s.

In the case of the noble Goblin Ace, this seems to have been an injustice, as they were solidly built with technology durable enough to send man to the Moon and back, and just kept going getting wheezier and more asthmatic as they aged. My first flat had a veteran Goblin Ace, and we steadfastly ignored the threadbare state of the dust bag. The machine wheezed on until one day it sucked up a lump of something that shot straight through a hole in the bag and into the impeller. The room was instantly enveloped in a dust-storm as the sounds of a gang shoot-out erupted from the goblin’s innards. Before it could be turned off, the motor started to disintegrate and the machine finally passed on to meet its maker as it emitted an impressive jet of flame.

As we toasted it farewell with a nerve-calming gin, I was reminded of another Goblin Ace that we’d had in my younger years. It was a tubular affair with “mag” wheels, perfect for a youngster to ride up and down the hall imagining that the hose duct was a rocket engine – well it was the beginning of the space age! My last Goblin Ace had made a valiant but vain attempt to fulfill my childhood dreams.

But I digress…

The latest company to fall victim to its own success is Google. The company name has quickly become synonomous with searching for things, and is used as both a verb and a noun. The acceptance of googling for information, facts and figures has been as rapid as the company’s growth. And even people that I expect to be more conservative in their use of the English language have surprised me by saying they’ll “google” for a piece of information.

The rapid entry of googling into the common vernacular doesn’t seem to have bothered Google the company at first, but another aspect of our fast-paced world has. Technology allows us to issue updates to on-line dictionaries more often than the days when we relied on the printed version. And there’s the rub. Once your brandname becomes commonly used as a noun or verb and appears in dictionaries, it seems that it can invalidate your control of the brand.

Is it just a lawyer’s ghost story or a real problem?

Well, I don’t know. It certainly bothered Xerox’s lawyers back in the 1970s and anyway it gave me something to “Wild Land” about.

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