The new iPad is less than a month old, but it’s already beat expectations and rocked all the sales charts you care to name. With three million units sold in the first three days, and with some people even willing to sell their own kidneys to be able to purchase one, it seems almost banal to say that iPad is becoming a household word. However, in the branding world there’s a fine line between the terms “household word” and “generic name”; one is good, and the other, not so good.
The process by which a popular product becomes the name most people associate with that product is called “genericide” and essentially involves a product becoming too successful for its own good. According to the Huffington Post, historically this has only happened to about 5% of U.S. brands, but when it does happen, it can be a little surprising. The most obvious example is Google, whose company name has quite rapidly developed into a verb meaning “to search for something on the Internet,” a process which leaves the other search engines bristling. But did you know that once upon a time the term “aspirin” was trademarked by Bayer? Or that the name “zipper” was once owned by B.F. Goodrich? Or that “escalators” were only those sold by Otis?
Some companies try to fight back. Kleenex, for example, is afraid that knock-off manufacturers will be able to “sell sandpaper and call in Kleenex.” Xerox has actually spent millions fighting the trend, with playful ads like “When you use ‘Xerox’ the way you use ‘aspirin,’ we get a headache” or “If you use ‘Xerox’ the way you use ‘zipper,’ our trademark could be left wide open.”
This isn’t unfamiliar terrain for Apple, whose iPod fairly quickly supplanted the more cumbersome “digital media player” or “MP3 player” when it was released in 2001. The iPad’s wild success seems to be earning it a similar fate, but with its rocketing sales figures Apple doesn’t seem all that concerned … which is probably best, according to Michael Weiss, professor of linguistics at Cornell University: “There’s nothing that can be done to prevent it once it starts happening. There’s no controlling the growth of language.”