Would a tissue by any other name sell as well?

‘Pass me a Kleenex.’
‘Quick, get a Band-Aid!’
‘Got any Post-Its?’

Have you ever heard or said any of these? And more importantly… should you?

Brands can become such a big part of our lives, we often think of brands, rather than the objects we use. Rather than buying toothpaste, we think about buying ‘Colgate’. Rather than buying brick toys, we think about buying ‘Lego’.

This equation of a specific brand with an entire category of product is evident in our language in the form of genericised trademarks.

Genericised trademarks

Generic or ‘genericised’ trademarks, otherwise known as proprietary eponyms, are trademarked brand names which have become synonymous with a general class of product or service.

For example, in the US ‘pass me a Kleenex’ may be said of any tissue, not just those of Kleenex brand. Kleenex was the first Western brand of tissues (they had been used in Japan for centuries beforehand) and thanks its popularity, ‘Kleenex’ has come to mean a tissue made by any manufacturer, not just Kleenex. In fact, the Merriam Webster and Oxford dictionaries both list ‘Kleenex’ as a wrod.

In Australia, ‘Rollerblades’ came to mean any kind of in-line skates, not just those of Rollerblade brand. ‘Velcro’ fasteners and ‘Band-Aid’ plasters are other examples of brand names that have become commonly used to refer to any products of their kind, regardless of maker.

When brand names are genericised to the extent that they no longer exclusively identify the owner as the commercial origin of the product/service, they may no longer qualify as enforcable trademarks. The use of the trademark as a verb (e.g. ‘That picture’s been Photoshopped‘), plural (‘I like playing with Legos‘) or posessive (unless the mark itself is posessive) are considered forms of genericisation.

The Oxford and Merriam Webster dictionaries struck a balance between acknowledging the widespread use of the verb ‘to google’ and its association with Google, defining google (all lower case) as use of ‘the Google search engine to obtain information on the internet’.

While companies take steps to ‘protect’ their trademarks, fearing ‘genericide’, or the erosion of their trademark to the point it can no longer be protected and other companies may use the same name, genericisation is not all bad for the companies involved – indeed, it is a measure of success in having achieved exceptional recognition.

To take the above example, Richard Stallman warns against the use of ‘google’ as a verb, suggesting instead the use of ‘search the web’ or simply ‘search’. And I’m certain that’s not because Stallman is an enormous fan of Google corporate, concerned about the enforcement of their intellectual property ‘rights’.

Rather, I think it’s because, when we refer to online searching as ‘googling’ often enough, we forget that other options exist. Even options which, like Duck Duck Go, might be better about respecting our privacy.

Why shouldn’t I call a tissue ‘a Kleenex’?

Personally, I try to avoid using brand names not because I’m trying to protect that company’s brand, but because I don’t want to unthinkingly endorse a product I’m not specifically referring to.

I’ll say ‘use sticky notes to flag important ideas in books’ rather than ‘use Post-It Notes’ because Post-Its are expensive and honestly, I’ve found sticky notes I like better.

I’ll say ‘look it up online’ rather than ‘google it’ because I don’t want to give Google free advertising, and I don’t use Google as my first search engine of choice personally.

I’ll say ‘pass me a tissue’ rather than ‘pass me a Kleenex’ because I don’t want to assume that everyone necessarily buys (or can afford) name-brand tissues, and besides, no-name tissues work just as well.

And I’ll say ‘can I have some paracetamol’ rather than ‘can I have some Panadol’ not just because I prefer to buy the cheaper generic brands wherever possible (I believe that pharmaceutical research should be funded by all of us based on need, not based on profit margins, so I have no desire to line the pockets of ‘big pharma’ any more than is necessary) but also because, as a traveler, I’m aware that brand names differ regionally.

Every time you say ‘I’m just going to pick up some Fairy and some Colgate’, you’re not only advertising those brands to other people – you’re advertising them to yourself. You’re forming a picture in your mind of what you’re going to purchase even before you’ve gotten to the store and checked the price and the quality of the other options on offer.

What brand names do you use? Have I missed any? Do any irritate you? Let me know below!

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Today’s featured image is a box of the charmingly communicative ‘Hello’ brand tissues – popular in Japan and sold in rainbow-coloured 5-packs.

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3 thoughts on “Would a tissue by any other name sell as well?

  1. I totally agree with you. Using brands instead of generic terms implies that you consider people around you are making meaning from this, which is not always the case. For me, this tendency can create Intercultural miscommunication. Being ‘global citizens’ must not equate with imposing a standardised worldview shaped by international brands.

    1. Thanks for your comment Nadine! You raise a great point about intercultural communication.
      Referring to specific products can be useful as examples to get our point across when communicating in another language (e.g. if you don’t know how to say ‘soda’ or ‘cola’ you can give examples of ‘Pepsi’, ‘Coke’ etc. at a restaurant) but I agree we should be careful not to assume that what is ‘normal’ for us is for everyone else. I think this is as true across national borders as it is across different neighbourhoods…
      I talked about this topic with a friend in another country not long after I wrote this post. She said that in her country, hardly anyone buys Kleenex – it’s too expensive. Local brands are the norm.
      And when we were volunteering in Fiji, even asking for a tissue was a faux pas – the small island shop didn’t sell tissues, only toilet paper. There, tissues – of any brand – were considered a luxury.
      I’m reminded of something my mother always used to tell me as a child – if you’re at someone’s house, and you’re thirsty, ask for water. Not juice, not soft drink and certainly not ‘Coke’ or ‘Pepsi’ etc. If you’re offered one of these options, it’s fine to accept, but you shouldn’t assume that everyone enjoys the same level of income, or has the same ideas about living as you.
      You’re absolutely right that being a global citizen is very different to globalisation. It’s about understanding, appreciating and adapting to different norms, enjoying the various textures the world has to offer, not attempting to flatten them. After all, that’s how we discover wonderful new things! I know I would get nowhere near as much enjoyment out of traveling if I ordered Coke and a McDonald’s Burger everywhere…!

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