Verbing your trademark away, and why no one was ever caught yahooing

One of the web’s most famous trademark owners recently had a conniption about people using “to google” and “googling” generically. Today another victim of this brand name erosion — think permission marketing — offers some great advice on branding in the Internet Age. The gist: Chill out. But overlooked is how Google’s superior search engine isn’t the main reason it is them crying in their beers instead of Yahoo.

Mr. Godin takes the long view of these trademark infringements. If someone starts using your brand name generically, and you own that domain name, how much real brand damage can be done? Consumers can find you even if they don’t google you. Oops.

He then talks about the ability of consumers to “verb” your brand in the first place. Comparing two popular social bookmarking sites, Digg and Reddit, you can easily see why only one of them is at risk of genericide. It sounds meaningful when you digg a site. Not so much if you reddit.

Naseem Javed, author of Naming for Power and Domain Wars, sheds more light on how some names are easier to verb than others:

Studies have shown that certain alpha-structures do not easily lend themselves to verbing. Despite their fame and popularity in daily language, these types of names survive over time and remain powerful corporate brands while enjoying a proprietary status. Some examples are Yahoo, Apple, Netscape, Telus, Microsoft, Sony, Rolex and Nintendo. Have you ever heard, “I Rolexed and realized I was late?” or, “Leave me alone, I’m Appling”?

Unlike Mr. Godin, Mr. Javed thinks Google’s easily verbed name is serious reason for concern, and calls this misuse of the brand name, “A corporate nightmare — a code-red alert.”

Which brings me back to Yahoo. They should be happy, right?

Ten years ago when they had a similar market share to what Google has today, people were rollerblading and fedexing but not yahooing. What if people were yahooing in the pre-Google era? (And yes, they actually tried to trigger a trend, with their “Do you Yahoo?” campaign of a few years back.)

If that were so, and the dictionaries featured them in their pages, Google would probably have a little less of the search market today. That’s because folks would sometimes assume someone really did go to Yahoo when they said they yahooed. But they don’t.

If I were Yahoo, I would side with Seth Godin. And I would consider the lack of genericide of their brand name a corporate code-red alert.

One thought on “Verbing your trademark away, and why no one was ever caught yahooing”

  1. From a marketing standpoint having a “genericized trademark” is a dream. But then think about the ramifications that could bring to your bottom line.

    Your brand would be a household name, and you’d have the benefits that come with that.

    You’d have a pretty large brand moat that competitors would have to swim across prior to competitions with your business. An easy example of this would be Coca Cola, and Pepsi. Both of them have massive brand moats. Imagine trying to take market share or retail shelf space from those two; close to impossible.

    In the good ol’ US of A, a generic mark forms part of the public domain and can be commercially exploited by anyone. Legally speaking wouldn’t that create a drawbridge over your moat and into your castle?

    Marketers in that situation would be livin’ the dream, at first. But in time competitors would swarm the castle and ravage the brand until nothing was left. It’s happened before; there was a time when Jungle Gym, escalator, and cellophane were all “trademarked”.

    Based on the ramifications alone Google being added to the Oxford dictionary could be a bad idea.

    In my opinion I think that it’s a fine line to tread and it’s something that will keep Google busy for some time.

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