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Could Google Lose Its Famous Name?

Too much brand recognition can actually be a bad thing, especially if left unchecked, and lead to the loss of your trademark rights.

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It is often said that too much of a good thing is bad.  In the trademark and brand world this has a special and unique interpretation.

We all want our brands to be globally recognized, famous, to evoke a visceral response in consumers when they hear our trademark. But be warned, too much fame can, paradoxically, lead to the loss of your brand's value. That very same phenomenon may be occurring today to Google, one of the world's most powerful brands.

What, you may ask, am I talking about? It's simple. It is known as the genericization of a  trademark. A genericized trademark is a trademark or brand name that has become the colloquial or generic description for, or synonymous with, a general class of product or service rather than an indicator of the source or affiliation of those goods or services. In short, the brand becomes so popular in consumers' everyday speech that they begin using the trademark to refer to a general class of goods or services and not merely the trademark holder's goods or services.

How often do you hear someone say "Google It" these days? If you search the phrase in any of the major search engines it returns millions of results. This simple command, at first, seems innocuous. If you do not know the answer to something or need information on the same you "Google It." That's fine so long as when a person hears that phrase they actually use Google's search engine to "Google It." But what happens when they do not.

What happens, as it appears to be the growing case, when the phrase "Google It" generally begins to be recognized as a simple or hip way of saying "Search for the answer on the Internet?" At that point Google's brand is no longer being used as a trademark and, ironically because of its significant brand recognition, has started down the path of becoming synonymous with search engine services and, accordingly, towards the genericization of a  trademark.

Think it can't happen? Think again. Here are a few examples of famous trademarks that, over the years, suffered the same fate. Aspirin was originally a trademark of Bayer AG. Escalator was originally a trademark of the Otis Elevator Company. Even the word Zipper, at one time, was a trademark owned by B.F. Goodrich. Now, because of their respective fame and genericization, they merely refer to classes of products we see every day and do not identify the source of those goods.

In more recent times several brands have come close to genericization only to be saved by efforts by the companies to reign in the generic use thereof. For instance, how many of us around the office use to say "Xerox this for me." From Xerox's perspective this was originally great brand saturation. But as people began to say this meaning photocopy this for me even if they had a Cannon copier the genericization of the trademark had begun.

Hand me a Kleenex is another famous example. Kleenex is a brand name. Facial tissue is the generic equivalent. How many of us have asked for a Kleenex when we really don't care if it is a Kleenex brand facial tissue or not, we are simply trying to get a facial tissue quickly before a sneeze?

Finally there is Band-Aid, a registered trademark of Johnson & Johnson. When is the last time you cut yourself and asked for an adhesive bandage? Johnson & Johnson would appreciate it if you would, unless you have their trademark Band-Aids in your medicine cabinet.

So coming full circle, is Google on the verge of losing their trademark rights in the brand name Google? Perhaps. And this is the great paradox of famous brands. They want to become known by every consumer in the world but not so well-known that they become synonymous for the class of goods or services they provide.

I have never walked into a restaurant and tried to order a "McDonald's" meaning a hamburger. When I have shopped for cars I do not recall having overheard anyone on a lot saying "I love your Fords" using the term generically to refer to cars. Yet every day I hear people say "Google It" meaning look it up on the Internet irrespective of what search engine or means you use. Google should be very cautious about the use of its trademark in this manner. In my opinion, in permitting this proliferation of use they have taken the first step down the road to the genericization of their trademark, a step which should be curtailed.

IMAGE: Flickr/brionv
Last updated: Apr 19, 2012

MATTHEW SWYERS is the founder of The Trademark Company, a Web-based law firm specializing in protecting the trademark rights of small to medium-size businesses. The company is ranked No. 138 on the 2011 Inc. 500.
@TrademarkCo




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