When a brand name becomes a verb

February 13, 2023
Brand naming

When Microsoft’s chief executive, Steve Ballmer announced why he liked the name Bing for their new search engine, he said the name “works globally” and could potentially “verb up.”

He was anticipating a moment when people would bing an address, or bing a restaurant.

There was a time when companies like Microsoft would have gone to any length to stop people using their brand name in such a casual manner. Businesses loathed their brands becoming verbs because they feared the loss of their individual identity.

The Example of Xerox

A classic example is Xerox. Xerox has been adamant in urging consumers to photocopy documents rather than xerox them. Their concern was that if “to xerox something” became the default way of saying “to photocopy something” then the verb would define what Xerox’s company does, rather than who Xerox is. If this were to happen, the company’s differentiation in the market place would be lost amongst its competitors.

That is one reason why companies sought trademarks: by controlling their brand name, businesses wanted to prevent the moment when their brand name grew so popular that it defined all similar products. That would have led to genericide.

But things are seen differently today. Marketing experience has clearly shown it as a very good thing when people start “verbing up” with your name. The internet has speeded up the way reputations are made and destroyed. And it’s now seen as advantageous to get market share when you can and worry about the details later, when the brand name has entered the vernacular and possibly made the brand less distinctive. Having a brand name that is foremost in consumers minds, even at the possibility of genericide is a risk many businesses would be delighted to take.

Everybody’s “Tweeting”

While Bing would love to replace googleing with binging, a company on the other side of the momentum is Twitter. In recent years “to tweet” – sending a message on twitter – has become a verb, and Twitter moved to trademark the term in 2009.

Twitter treaded carefully here. They announced that the company would not seek legal injunctions against those using the term for third party Twitter-related services and applications. However, speaking in a manner typical for companies who are quickly verbing up, they warned that they would take action in the event of a “confusing or damaging project ” to protect both users and our brand.” It appears that Twitter is not worried about the term ‘tweet’ becoming too popular, rather they are trying to exert some control over what is a desirable company, product or service for them to be associated with. Ultimately controlling who can use the terms Twitter and Tweet will allow Twitter to confer a level of exclusivity to some. This control is sort of like one step down from a patent.

Staying in Control of Brand Verbing

Steps can be taken to allow and encourage the use of verbing, whilst preventing – to some extent – the risk of genericide. These include :

   1. Make clear to consumers that the action suggested by the brandverb (eg “Googling”) cannot be made without using the branded product or service (eg Google).

   2. Build the verbed brand into taglines, slogans, and/or logos to reinforce the above point (eg “Googling is Impossible Without Google”)

   3. Register the form of the brand name being used as a brandverb.

   4. Incorporating appropriate usage into brand guidelines.


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