Kleenex Fights Being Generic


Occasionally we encounter start-up technology clients who tell us they want their name to be so popular it gets turned into a verb. Like, Google or Xerox. Oh ho ho, no you don’t! These big-name companies spend a lot of money fighting the genericization of their famous brand names. They all want to protect themselves from their brand name becoming so generic that they lose their trademark rights.

Case in point. Kleenex recently took out this full page ad in Brandweek; surely not pocket change. (Keep reading after the image for more of the blog post.)

If you can’t quite read the text, it says:

You don’t need a Social Security number to get your identity stolen. When you spend nearly a century building a name that people know and trust, the last thing you want is people calling any old tissue a Kleenex® Tissue. Simply put, ‘Kleenex’ is a brand name and should always be followed by an ® and the word ‘Tissue.’ Please help us keep our identity, ours.

The upside of having your name used as the generic term, or as a “verb” is that you own top-of-mind presence with the consumer. The downside is that when your name becomes synonymous with the category name, any one of your competitors (or all of them!) can use it to describe their own similar product.

Rollerblade was faced with having their name become the generic descriptor for roller skates with four wheels all in a row. Competitive companies cropped up and started calling their products rollerblades too. Sure, it was great to be imitated. But it was also dangerous to lose a brand in which they’d built so much equity. Rollerblade did not want to lose their proprietary trademark the way other famous trademarks had, such as zipper, aspirin, escalator, granola, yo-yo, and linoleum. (It’s true, all of those were once famous trademarks that eventually lost their trademark rights because their brand names became generically used.) As a result, Rollerblade created a retronym, or a word created to describe something because the existing term is inadequate or inappropriate. Rollerblade successfully coined and convinced their competitors to use the term “in-line skates,” thus saving their trademark.

It’s obvious that Kleenex is attempting to do that by encouraging the addition of the term “tissue” or “brand tissue” to their name. It’s the “Kleenex brand” of tissues; tissues being the generic term. They clearly spent plenty of money just to define the category and protect their brand name. This should serve as a good example to start-ups out there who think they want their name to become generic. It’s a good problem to have in the beginning. But it’s also a problem you never want to have once you’re big and famous!


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