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If you happen to leave your Jacuzzi to get a Band-Aid and accidentally get hit with a Frisbee and step in some Super Glue, not only do you have terrible luck, but you also have come into contact with a unique family of objects.
There’s no name for this family, but you’ve no doubt seen or talked about its members before.
They are trademarked products that society has come to “genericize” – that is, we’ve collectively agreed the brand name is what the generic product is called. Hot tubs are “Jacuzzis,” flying discs are “Frisbees,” and plastic bandages are “Band-Aids.”
And there are dozens more you might never know are actually trademarked – Hula-Hoop, Rollerblade, and Scotch Tape, just to name a few. We throw these names around so casually, we fail to realize when we’re not even using the real thing.
But equally mysterious is how these brands came to stand in for the entire set of products in their category. To find out, Business Insider spoke with Andrés Mendoza Peña, a marketing and branding expert at the management consultant firm A.T. Kearney.
Peña pointed to two specific factors that allow some brands to become the de facto name while others retain their generic title.
1. The brand has to create or reshape a category or product type.
2. The brand cannot be bigger than the product.
If you consider the most popular genericized products, many of them were the first or best version of their particular category. Flying discs began with inventor Walter Frederick Morrison turning a Frisbie pie tin into a toy in the 1950s. Jacuzzi started out as an airplane propeller manufacturer but ultimately used the technology to create the leading commercial hot tub.
To become the go-to name for a product, Peña says, brands have to capture people’s attention. And they can do that either by being first, or by being the best.
But there’s a catch, he says, and that’s where we get the second factor. Brands can’t outshine their products and still expect the public to recognize the product as the hero. Apple is the perfect example.
“They have been pushing the boundaries for new products and categories” for years, Peña says. As a result, Apple is its own respected brand. When the iPod came out amid a sea of generic MP3 players, people saw it as a singular product. Apple’s device was so innovative that nothing else could possibly share its name.
It’s the same reason we don’t call all tablet computers “iPads,” Peña explains. Apple was the definitive pioneer in many of its product categories, but according to public perception, Apple is larger than those products. 3M is not larger in the public imagination than Post-Its.
Companies tend not to like it when their products get genericized, even if the popularity might seem like a good thing. When people mindlessly buy generic but think they’re getting a brand, the actual brand gets diluted and the company misses out on a potential sale.
Not that customers are to blame. That’s just how branding works. Create a great product at the right time, and it can be successful. But attain a certain level of success, and suddenly the brand takes on a life of its own.