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Mindshare and the Brand Verb

An interesting New York Times article on the associative powers — think mind share — companies gain from verbs.

There is a lot of psychology at work in the simple use of the, now common, “google” verb.

If you say you’re going to “google” something, we can probably assume that you use google, will use google for this particular query, and will use google to be consistent with what you publicly stated even if another search engine offers better results.

It once would have been unthinkable for a company like Microsoft to encourage people to use its brand name so cavalierly. Businesses feared that if their product name became a verb, then it would lose its individual identity.

Consider the case of Xerox, which has long urged consumers to “photocopy” rather than “xerox” documents. The fear was that if “to xerox something” became another way of saying, “to photocopy something,” the term would end up defining not what Xerox is (a company that makes a distinctive brand of copiers), but what Xerox’s products do (make photocopies). In the process, the difference between Xerox and its competitors would begin to melt away.

That’s why companies acquire trademarks, after all. By controlling the use of their brand name, businesses hope to put off the day when the name grows so popular that it defines all similar products on the market. When that happens, a brand has been lost to “genericide,” lawyers say. That means that the term is so prevalent, or generic, that it no longer sticks to a single company.

Yet, as the Bing example shows, the speed at which reputations are made and destroyed in the Internet age has changed the thinking about the danger of brand names becoming verbs. Better to get the market share when you can and worry later, when the brand becomes part of the popular vernacular and less distinctive in the process.

…In the past, Xerox ran a very expensive campaign in places like Editor and Publisher that said don’t use xerox as a verb,” she said. “What people know from marketing experience now and what people now understand as a practical matter is that it is very good when people use your name as verb.”