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The Power of the Brand as Verb

Perhaps nothing better illustrates how far behind Microsoft is in the search engine wars than a recent comment by the company’s chief executive, Steve Ballmer, about why he liked the name Bing for Microsoft’s new competitor to Google.

The name, he told The New York Times, “works globally” and has the potential “to verb up.” That is, some day, Mr. Ballmer hopes, people will “bing” a new restaurant to find its address or “bing” a new job applicant for telling events in his past.

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.

“The risk of becoming generic is so low, and the benefits of being on the top of someone’s mind are so high,” said Rebecca Tushnet, an expert on trademark law at Georgetown University.

“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.”

Twitter is on the other side of the spectrum from Bing — it is growing fast and needs to worry about protecting a popular brand. So it was not surprising that Twitter recently decided to apply to trademark the term “tweet,” which has become the accepted verb for sending a message on Twitter.

Even so, one of Twitter’s founders, Biz Stone, stressed in a blog post on July 1 that the company would not be “ ‘going after’ the wonderful applications and services that use the word in their name when associated with Twitter.” But he did add what is a familiar warning from a company with a name that is verbing up very quickly: “If we come across a confusing or damaging project, the recourse to act responsibly to protect both users and our brand is important.”

Yet it seems Twitter is not worried about tweet becoming too popular a term; rather Twitter may be trying to control who gets to signal that an application is somehow approved or desirable. Twitter, to its credit, is a highly flexible, decentralized product. You can use it easily without ever visiting Twitter.com. So a plan for making money may rely less on advertising at the home page, and more on the company’s creating services for handling tweets or licensing other companies that create Twitter applications.

And controlling who uses the words Twitter or Tweet would be a way of gaining some form of exclusivity. It’s not clear cut like owning a patent, but it gives a competitive edge, Ms. Tushnet said. Brands are largely about signaling. Seeing Tweet in a product name could convey similar signals in the future, and why wouldn’t Twitter try to own that?

The leader among Internet brands turned verbs, of course, is Google. Imagine the glee in Microsoft headquarters if Google lost its trademark protection to genericide. If “google” becomes synonymous with conducting an Internet search, then Microsoft could legally and confusingly advertise by saying: “Use Bing for all of your most complicated googling!”

Still, even with so much to lose, Google seems conflicted on the question. It has a policy page that instructs companies it does business with on how to use its trademark terms: “Use the trademark only as an adjective, never as a noun or verb, and never in the plural or possessive form. Use a generic term following the trademark, for example: Google search engine, Google search, Google Web search.”

Yet as Professor Tushnet of Georgetown Law School has documented for her trademark law class, a 2004 Palm pilot ad campaign included the catchy slogan: “go places, google things.”

 

Noam Cohen, The New York Times. July 19, 2009

Copyright © 2009 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.