Struggling with asthma, embattled janitor and part-time inventor James Spangler takes matters into his own hands, creating an electric carpet sweeper in an attempt to save himself from inhaling copious amounts of dust as he goes about his daily business.
Spangler’s invention, the Electric Suction Sweeper, was, of course, the earliest version of what we know today as the vacuum cleaner.
Spangler was soon to sell the patent to William Hoover, who went on to change the name of the operating company to the Hoover Suction Sweeper Company following Spangler’s passing in 1915.
Under William’s guidance the product took off, quickly establishing itself as a ‘must have’ across the US and throughout Europe.
Of course, there were plenty of competitors. But, whether it was the best product on the market or simply the first; whether it was the most popular or simply had the catchiest name, the ‘Hoover’ soon became synonymous with the act of ‘sweeping the floor with an electronic device’.
All over the world, people were ‘doing the hoovering’. And soon, whether they were purchasing an authentic product from William Hoover via James Spangler, or a machine developed by one of the opposition, they’d head to the shop to ’buy a hoover’.
In short, the name had become ‘generic’; the product’s purpose and the name of the product itself had become interchangeable.
The same scenario has repeated itself throughout history.
Today, when we ask for a ‘band-aid’ we’re not always specifically hunting for one of Johnson & Johnson’s sticky plasters; when we talk about our kids playing with ‘Matchbox cars’ often we just mean they’re playing with toy cars.
And, regardless of the search engine we might be using, when we go online to try and find something we invariably say we’re ‘googling it’!
Sure, on one side of the equation this speaks to considerable success – if your brand has become a ‘generic’ it means you’ve gained so much exposure you’ve literally become a household name.
But becoming an iconic brand brings with it a host of new problems. Widespread use of your brand (as an industry term rather than a name) can make it incredibly hard to distinguish yourself from the opposition. It can also make it easier for your competitors to take advantage of all the hard work you’ve done over the years, using the reputation you’ve established to sell their cheaper, inferior products.
In the most extreme cases, businesses whose brands become generic can find themselves losing the legal protection which surrounds their name.
Today, words like ‘aspirin’, ‘nylon’ and ‘escalator’ are all part of our daily vernacular. But these all started out as brand names (for a pain relief product, an item of apparel, and a moving stairway, respectively). In all three instances the brand names became such an accepted part of everyday speech that the businesses who owned them lost their trademark, and with it the right to claim sole usage of the term.
Of course, none of this means you shouldn’t strive to become as widely known and as popular as you possibly can. What it does mean is that you can never rest on your laurels. You need to be aware that with every success comes a new set of challenges. And you need to remain vigilant, always aware of your brand’s position in the market, and always ready to evolve your thinking in order to retain its integrity and strength.