Google This: What It Means When A Brand Becomes A Verb

TiVo. FedEx. Taser. Velcro. Superglue. Sometimes consumers latch onto a brand and make it a verb--the question is whether it helps or hurts a brand.

We FaceTime and Skype but we generally don’t Facebook or YouTube. We Google but we don’t Bing (at least not yet). We Rollerblade but we don’t Slinky. In past years, we would Xerox but would never Polaroid. Why are some popular brands or products used as verbs in our everyday conversation and others not?

It’s an interesting question and there are opposing sides in the business world about whether “verbifying” (which is a verbified word in itself) a brand or product is a good thing or not. On the one hand, the marketers tend to believe it’s the ultimate compliment and demonstrates a personal connection between consumer and brand. The intellectual property attorneys, on the other hand, usually contend that using a product or brand name this way risks what is termed “genericide,” (as Dave Barry used to say, “I’m not making this up…”) meaning losing the legal power of a trademark. Xerox, for example, for several years apparently ran a campaign with publishers asking them to not use the name “Xerox” as a verb when the generic term “photo copy” was the intended meaning. A much referenced 2009 New York Times article describes the opposing views.

TiVo. FedEx. Taser. Velcro. Superglue. Sometimes we consumers just latch onto a dominant brand and verbify it with no mind or care about whether the company wants us to or not. But it’s not clear why this happens to some products but not to others, even if they have similar product characteristics. Why do many people use the verb “Photoshop” (a product by Adobe) to mean any type of digital image manipulation but we don’t use “Word” (a product by Microsoft) as a verb to mean any type of word processing?

Technically, the etymologists refer to the practice of verbing as “anthimeria,” which means a functional shift or conversion of word use, and it’s not a new phenomenon. Shakespeare was a serial verber, for instance. It can be creative and clever but in the business world it is abused and can become buzzword-speak. We ballpark, we partner, we value-add, eyeball, fast track, leverage, and we green-light. And in meetings we flip chart. But the line must be drawn somewhere. People using “dialogue” as a verb, for instance, should be formally reprimanded and the use of “architect” as a verb should be grounds for termination.

Oh, sorry about the little rant. We were talking about brands being verbified and perhaps the first brand to do that consciously as part of its marketing strategy is Simoniz, the car wax. Back in the 1920s or '30s the company’s tagline was “Motorist wise, Simoniz” and posters and ads from that period would exhort car owners to “Simoniz Now!” Similarly, having grown up in Michigan in the 1960s and 1970s, we would routinely use the brand Ziebart as both a noun and a verb (“Did you Ziebart your new car yet?”) to refer to any car rustproofing process (there’s that genericide bugaboo again).

Sometimes companies’ efforts to “verb up” their brands fail or fizzle. Back in the 1970s I recall a campaign by the grocery chain Kroger which featured a jingle that sang out “Let’s go Krogering, Krogering, Krogering…” Let’s just say that ad was soon retired. And Yahoo several years ago asked people “Do you Yahoo?” Yahoo no longer asks that question and seems to be content to remain a noun.

Brand verbification. What do you think will be the next one to enter our everyday lexicon--and does it help or hurt a brand?

--Mike Hoban is a management consultant in his day job and can be contacted at business-at-large@sbcglobal.net.

[Image: Flickr user Isolino Ferreira]

Add New Comment

38 Comments

  • Iain Greig

    Surely the term "Google it" is music to the big wigs at Googles ears. I can not comprehend any negative in this shift of language for them.

    Surley the lame attempts by Yahoo to verbify showcases the desire for big companies to become a verb.......

  • FredRex

    To verbify conversation is to conversate. I saw an interview with an NBA or NFL player and he said he was going to conversate with someone.

  • Rank Watch

    Google is certainly the verb which is great to see it verbified with the ocean of knowledge that it provides its users to learn from. It would be great to see brands such as amazon, eBay, nike etc being verbified.

  • Paul Abrams

    I oversee public relations for Roto-Rooter and the name of our company has become synonymous with sewer and drain cleaning services. As such, our name has enjoyed verb status for decades. Many people with clogged drains ask to have them "Roto-Rootered" so they'll drain freely. However, it's a constant battle to prevent competitors from using our name as a description of services they offer ("we provide Roto-Rooter service"). Our name is both our greatest asset and our greatest detriment because it is so very descriptive of sewer cleaning but not very descriptive of water heater service or garbage disposal repair. Roto-Rooter became the company to call for sewer service starting in 1935 but we became a full-service plumbing company 33 years ago. Since that time the company has grown into the largest plumbing repair company in the U.S. and Canada, but many people, especially older people, still only think of us as the company to call for unclogging pipes.

  • Raluca Gavrilescu

    Through a form of reasoning with metonymy, people use to verbify and also create other eponyms from names of brands, people, things etc. when these get very popular and specific for a category. In other words - we verbify a trademark name only when we feel it represents an unique instrument and we know perfectly well what it does. Hence no joy for Facebook:)

  • Sean

    When a brand becomes a verb, it is the ultimate status symbol that your brand has become ubiquitous. 

    So rejoice.

  • SJBain

    Disagree, Xerox being verbified doesn't necessarily help its sales. A lot of offices will go for an HP or a Cannon printer and still ask the intern to "Xerox" things.

  • Michael Bolton

    In most I agree but this is a little "US Domestic"
    in it examples and thinking -  I would
    argue no one in Europe would FedEx something they would "courier it",
    FedEx is no more special than UPS or DHL or any number of brands No one I know
    TiVos anything but they SkyPlus it! And part of that power is it domestically
    known or is it internationally known.

    The answer "why" would seem to be linked to its
    market share, penetration and brand awareness. TiVo is used in the UK but has
    relatively small market share SKY Plus much larger hence. And there is no
    agreed term for the action. In college I was taught we dry suction clean - not
    hoover. You can see why one term got used as an acceptable term to hoover
    rather than dry suction clean. Similarly to record in on a hard disc - it was
    easy to say I'll tape it - but what do we do now - I'll hard disc it? So when
    the task is ill defined and there is a dominant brand which everyone is
    familiar with – hey presto it becomes the verb.

    Some brands do deserve the right over an "action"
    or type of service If someone says I'll PDF it then I expect a PDF file not a
    pdf "type" file, but also I go to a bar and order a coke and they ask
    if Pepsi is ok - and it is.

  • Julia Giesbrecht

    I definitely think that verbalizing a brand is a compliment and shows the popularity and most likely even market share of that product. When I google something I never do it on any other platform, I photoshop everything in Adobe Photoshop and I facebook all my friends the newest news I got for them. The verbalized services and products are the one's I am using almost exclusively and if I have to make a choice between several products, the one's that stick in the had would be the once chosen. 

  • Mauro Scimia

    it helps the brand. Even more, it's the ultimate brand narrowing. In fact, verbifyinga brand unequivocally identifies a very specific product use and positioning. When you "hoover" , there is little doubt you're cleaning something. Genericization can and does occur when many different uses are advocated for a brand. At least, each use should be regarded as a product on its own and re-branded.

  • Mauro Scimia

    it helps the brand. Even more, it's the ultimate brand narrowing. In fact, verbifyinga brand unequivocally identifies a very specific product use and positioning. When you "hoover" , there is little doubt you're cleaning something. Genericization can and does occur when many different uses are advocated for a brand. At least, each use should be regarded as a product on its own and re-branded.

  • Jan Piet van der Plank

    I would say any language develops so fast that verbifying a noun ( in this case a brand name) is just another example of the turbo speed of language development, when this concerns a brand,I would argue it raises the emotional value of a brand, nothing more.

  • Mikken

    I think it's pretty obvious why we say "The image was photoshopped" and not "The article was Worded". With the image, the alternative is to say "The image was edited digitally" (retouch is not sufficient) - it is much simpler to say "Photoshopped". Word is simply a text editor, used to write. You don't need a new word for "write". "Search for it on the internet" = "Google it". (Not "Alta Vista" it, mind you). Yahoo came to the dinnerparty too late to be able to define the verb (and Google rolls off the tongue more easily).

    So, if your brand becomes a verb, it's a benchmark that tells you that you were first to the top, but all the contenders will be there with you soon.
    The downsides of this are pretty obvious too. When xerox becomes the verb, your brand name is diluted with all the other inferior players in the field, and their negative attributes might be associated with you.

    But it's not enough to be best. mp3 became the word for digital music file, while other compression methods offers higher compression at lower data loss rates.

    And a bonus question: When a persons name becomes a verb, it's almost always derogatory. Why?

  • Londonwascallingin1979

    There is a mobile brand in the UK (I won't dignify it by naming names - suffice to say it is the 6th horse in a four-horse race) that has been trying to verbify the word "internet" in its radio advertising for the last year or so ("6th Horse - the mobile network built for internetting").

    I wish they would stop - it doesn't remotely convincing.  In fact, it's stupid.

  • Andrew

     That didn't work very well...

    The l;ast line should have read, "I wish they would stop - it isn't remotely convincing.  In fact, it's stupid."

    Sorry, Andrew.