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Branding Heroin: Why Marketers Love Verbs and Lawyers Do Not

Heroin as a Brand Why Marketers Love Verbs and Lawyers Do Not

Been Googling branding lately?  If you do, there’s a good chance your search will reveal this post I wrote and Copyblogger published in 2012. My point in bringing that up isn’t to brag, it’s to broach a discussion about lawyers, marketers, branding and trademarks.

I didn’t start this post by asking if you searched for content about branding on a search engine with intention.  Instead, I asked, as so many of us commonly do, if you found it by using Google’s trademarked name as a verb.

For marketers, a brand that becomes a verb is a sign of success, but for lawyers it spells risk.

That was the subject of a Marketplace story this evening titled: The English language is one big brand graveyard.  Indeed it turns out – Heroin was actually a “branded form of morphine” at one time.  So too were Aspirin, Escalator and Trampoline, according to the same story:

“We have a lot of words that were once trademarked brands…In some cases, companies just went out of business and their brand name lived on as nouns. In other cases, the trademark was taken from them. In all cases, the trademarked name had become a generic buzz word for a type of product. The trademark and a company’s rights to it then slip away into the roiling ether of vernacular English.

Intellectual property lawyers have a word for this: Genericide.”

Xerox as the Quintessential Example

Xerox of course, is the classic story. When lawyers speak of Xerox, the brand name became synonymous with photocopying – a verb – and the trademark was eventually lost.  Tragedy ensued.

When marketers speak of Xerox, a difficult to pronounce word describing an entirely new concept in its day, became easy to understand. The education hurdle, perhaps the biggest hurdle in a sales cycle was removed. Xerox, of the photocopying variety, lived a long, prosperous and profitable life.

Xerox, in the  photocopier sense, didn’t die because the brand trademark was lost;  xeroxing paper became obsolete – replaced by digital substitutes as Porter’s Five Forces might have suggested.  Today Xerox is a document management company, which has less to do with paper and more to do with electrons.

At the time of this writing, it trades on the stock exchange (NYSE: XRX) for $12 a share with a market capitalization of $14 billion, though its income statement does show slowing growth and slipping profits, amid a highly competitive market.

“Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come.”

Brands are an Idea

The French thinker-writer Victor Hugo is famous for having said something akin to, “Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come.”

A brand is an idea – a powerful idea – which is a concept that exists in the mind of the customer as Al Ries and Jack Trout famously wrote.  It’s an idea that slips in unconsciously, like implicit memory, which may well increasingly becoming more puzzle and less mystery.

“A brand is a promise,” as I wrote in that Copyblogger post. “It’s an expectation of an experience.”

It is not a logo, it is not a tagline – and it is not a noun or a verb.  It is an intangible, abstract and asymmetrical notion that facilitates the very tangible sale of merchandise.  This is because people can understand what a product or service is, what it will cost and how it will benefit their lives without thinking; implicitly.  These things – logos and colors and even jingles – marketers sometimes mistakenly call “branding” merely exist to call that notion to mind but it is not the notion.

It may not be legally binding, but it is a cornerstone in one Al Ries’ other famous works:  “The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding.” I’d provide a link to the book, but that would take all the fun out of Googling it. And therein lies one of the many challenges in marketing, or better still, in business.

It is nearly enough to make the occasional recreational branding of heroin almost sound like fun.

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