Episode #42: When Is a Brand Not a Brand?

Grad Conn

December 22, 202012 min read

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Brand names are the crown jewels of an organization. They’re valuable, multi-faceted, and fiercely protected. But what happens when the brand name is lost? Not via an Ocean’s Eleven type heist, but from the overwhelming adoption of the consumers who use it? The phenomenon is called “genericide.” And it’s why brands spend so much time and energy protecting their trademarks.

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Welcome to the CXM Experience. I’m air drumming here as I love that music as it runs me in. A Jimi Hendrix Experience feel. Nice. Anyway, I’m Grad Conn, CXO at Sprinklr. And we’re gonna talk about experience again today. But with a little bit of a different twist. I’m going to talk about something that I’ve posted to my blog about branding and brand names that I thought was kind of interesting and fun for today.

So a rainy, pouring rain day in Florida. Although I know I’m not going to get a ton of sympathy from my friends in the northeast right now who are digging out from largest snowfall in a few years. I think they just got enough snow to equal all the snow from last year. Although to be fair, last year was very little snow. But, nonetheless, they got a lot of snow. And I’m complaining about a little bit of rain in Florida, and it’s gone down to 75. But you know, otherwise, we’re okay.

So let’s talk about branding and experience. You know, it’s funny… this is an aside, but I got a comment yesterday… we did a fun interview with Carlos Dominguez. And Carlos made a great comment, which was, nobody ever sets out to deliver a bad experience. Great comment. The real puzzlement is why it’s so hard to deliver great experiences. At Sprinklr our selling line is love your customers. And to really love your customers, you got to truly listen to what they’re saying. You have to be able to learn from that in a way that aggregates comments.

I was talking to a really interesting global customer this morning, in the snack business. Massive company, very, very impressive company. We pulled in 6.4 million posts for them in the last few months. That’s a lot of content. And to make sense of that you’re going to need AI to parse it. And then once you have that, and once you know what your customers are saying, be able to respond to them, be able to love them. Love your customers by showing them that you’re listening. You know, it’s true in life, that people who feel seen, or people who feel listened, to also feel loved. One of the easiest things that you can do with people in your life, is to put down the damn phone and just look at them. And just listen to them. One thing I find sometimes fun to do is just… maybe the other person is on the phone. And but I don’t go there. I look around restaurants or different places where people are together, and you’ll see couples, both on their phones, and both not paying attention to each other. I’m not sure, that’s a good idea. I think it’s better even if just one’s on the phone and the other one’s sitting there. Eventually the one on the phone will stop and look at you. And I think truly listening and truly connecting with someone is the great thing about being a human. And that’s what companies need to sort of find need to find that space of truly listening.

Let’s talk about branding. One of my favorite things in the whole world is branding. I put up a little post from a great New York Times article. It’s from about a year ago by Whitson Gordon, and just an excellent article on how brand names become generic. It’s quick, it’s short. But he’s got some cool things in here that I don’t think I knew. We’re all pretty familiar with the idea that Kleenex is both a brand name and something that people use as a term for facial tissues. And apparently, when you use a brand name as a generic term, you’re using a proprietary eponym. Or more simply a generic trademark. And so he goes through some of the examples. Velcro is another good example. Velcro is actually a company and a brand. Chapstick is an actual brand but people use that as a proprietary eponym. But did you know — and this I did not know — did you know that escalator was a brand name. I did not know that. Although it kind of makes sense. But I did not know that. This one is really surprising: dumpster. Dumpster is a brand name. Not anymore. But it was a brand name. Linoleum another one. Brand name now generic. Zipper. Wow. Right? Zipper was a brand name. Never thought about that. And this one is actually quite surprising. A brand name that I didn’t even realize was a brand name because guess the brand is gone. But trampoline was a brand name. And these were trademarks of companies whose products were so successful that they came to represent an entire category, which actually becomes quite a problem.

You know, over time a brand can become so famous and so ubiquitous that you actually start to associate the action and you associate the category with that brand. And so in everyday usage, people start using the term. So Band-Aids another great example. And, Johnson & Johnson is always defending the Band-Aid brand. Bayer famously lost his trademark for aspirin in the 1920s. And that was sort of the beginning of people being able to offer generic aspirin. Aspirin was originally the brand name.

 There’s a term for this called “genericide.” Which I thought was pretty cool. And basically, the way that court case went in the Bayer case, is that if a brand name is understood by the public to refer broadly to a category of goods and services, rather than the brand-specific goods or services, a company may be at risk of losing its trademark. Laundromat, another one. Wow. Right? And cellophane. Another one that’s maybe less used now. But still, cellophane was at some point, someone’s brand name. Bubble Wrap is a trademark of Sealed Air. Frisbee is a trademark of Whammo. And Velcro is trademarked by the company of the same name. So these are all generic terms. And we don’t really use the actual generic term. Like who says inflated cushioning? Or who tosses a flying disc? And who attaches anything using hook and loop fasteners? The brand names are just much better.

And you know, people will fight back. There’s different ways where people will actually run ads saying don’t use my generic name. Or they won’t use the name in plural. They don’t say Legos, they’ll say Lego bricks. They don’t say go Xerox this, they’ll say use a Xerox copier. And very careful to make sure their name is used. When you’re a writer, you get constant ads in the writing digests from these brands saying that when you refer to them in your books, and when you write about them, to refer to them in certain ways, so that they preserve their brand name, which I think is kind of cool. You don’t see that unless you’re in the writing zone.

And so I want to talk about two brands that I think are in great danger. One, I think is actually past the danger point, and one that’s at the danger point. And I think there’s a little bit of experience in this because if you lose your brand, it gets a little harder to communicate some of your experience attributes as well.

So let’s talk about someone who’s lost their brand. And in both cases, what’s complex about this is these brands are owned by marketing boards. So they’re an amalgamation of many different people. And I think that’s why it’s maybe difficult for them to rally against it. But these are funded marketing boards. They have their own budgets, they run their own advertising, they should be able to stay in front of it. So the first one — you may not think about this very often — but the first brand that has shockingly, I think completely lost its trademark is milk. Yep. Milk’s a very specific thing, or it used to be. Milk referred to the substance that came out of cows that we pasteurized and then drank. And, you know, let’s not get into the issues around that. But that’s what milk was. Milk came from cows. Not anymore. Now you’ve got almond milk, and you’ve got body milk… there’s so many different things that use the word milk to communicate something that’s white, or something that’s liquid or something that can be used on cereal. You know, it’s specifically a nutrient-rich liquid food produced by the mammary glands of mammals. That’s what milk is. Mammals do not make almond milk.

And so that’s one of the most amazing things, to watch milk allow all these other people to create things like coconut milk and all these other different… banana milk. I guess that condensed milk is actually milk. But it’s shocking. And what’s even more shocking is that the milk people have allowed these non milk products not only to use their name, but to be shown beside them in the dairy aisle. In the dairy case. A lot of these products don’t even need to be refrigerated. But they actually have put these “milk” products next to milk. And I don’t know if kids today even know what milk is anymore. It’s lost its meaning. And so now there has to be… Are we going to have to start saying cow milk? We might have to, because we need to modify what the milk is so we understand where it’s coming from. So milk, you blew it. And it’s too bad because milk had some of the best marketing of the 70s and 80s. “Does a body good,” you know, put on a mustache. They made some really cool marketing. And they did some really great work. And how they let this happen is beyond me. I don’t know if they can turn back the dial, probably too late. But they should try anyway.

Who’s up next? Meat. Okay, so meat’s another very specific thing. Meat is meat, right? Flesh from animals. But you’ve got all sorts of beyond meats and fake meats and new, essentially processed vegetables that are being marketed as meat. They’re not meat. They might be faked out to taste like meat, They might have some flavorings in them to make them have meat like qualities. But, not meat. And I think it’s just amazing that the Meat Marketing Board is not being way more disciplined in terms of making sure that these fake meats don’t be called meats. Because what will happen is, it’ll be the same situation as the milk people. You’ll be going down the meat aisle, and there’ll be all these different kinds of “meats.” Some will be cow meat, and some will be other kinds of meat. And you won’t be able to tell the difference. And I think that is a tragedy, because that’s again, the loss of the brand.

So two brands you may not think about very often is brands. Milk and meat. One has let their brand go. And one is in the process of letting it go. Very interesting to watch how this plays out. But genericide is a real thing.

And so let’s relate this back to experience for a second. So if you think about how you land experiences with people, part of that experience is how they feel about the brand itself. Part of that experience is how they feel an affinity to the brand and how that brand works as part of their life. So if your brand becomes generic, if your brand becomes something that people are confused by, or if your brand is something that other people can talk about, then you actually start to lose control of the experience. For example, if I say, hey, I need to get a Band-Aid, let’s use the one that’s maybe still a brand, but very dangerously on the precipice at all points in time. And I just buy a band aid that’s not a high quality Johnson & Johnson Band-Aid, but a lower quality generic brand. And I have a bad experience with that band aid… it falls off, my cut gets reinfected, whatever, I start to have a negative feeling about Band-Aids, not about whatever lousy brand I bought. And so what happens is the loss of brand halo allows the experience to translate across people you don’t control. And so you have a poor experience with a low quality version of your brand, because they’ve been able to use your brand name because you allowed your brand name to be generic. I think that’s super dangerous. And I think most people would agree that that’s something you need to stay on top of. Make sure you’re not becoming genericized.

Alright, that’s it for today. That was kind of a fun little soapbox to jump on. We’ve got some very cool experience management examples coming up the next couple of weeks. And especially as we wind into the holidays, I’ll be talking about experiences to do with the holiday season. It’s always a fun time to see how things land from an experience standpoint. I’ll also be doing a little bit of travel so I’ll be able to report on some experiences in that front as well. So look forward to a bunch of experience management conversations there. And for the CXM Experience. I’m Grad Conn, and I’ll see you next time.

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