If you’ve ever told a friend you would “Uber over” to meet them, you’ve helped the ride-hailing company reach that rarest of brand-name achievements: becoming a verb.
It’s one thing for a market-dominating product like Kleenex, Jacuzzi, or Coke to become the default noun for a category, but ascendance to Google- or Xerox-like verb status is the ultimate level of a brand’s infiltration into its customers’ physical existence.
But just how does a brand become a verb, and why is it significant? “Any name could become a verb, so long as that brand or product is linked to a very specific, repeated action,” says Anthony Shore, a linguist who has named dozens of brands, including Jaunt, Snapdragon, and Lytro through his agency Operative Words. He cites FedEx, Skype, and Photoshop as similar examples. “If there’s a brand that’s very focused on something action-oriented, it might become a verb, especially if that action doesn’t have an obvious verb already in place. You could call FedEx overnight shipping, but they created the category.”
Shore also says there’s nothing about the shape or sound of brand names themselves that particularly encourages or discourages adoption as a verb. “There’s not much of a difference between the words Xerox and Nike, or Photoshop and Microsoft,” he says. “Names like Nike, Microsoft, and Apple haven’t become verbs because they’re not well defined as actions. What would Apple need to do to be a verb? The brand isn’t limited to one specific action.”
The verbing of a brand, however, doesn’t always indicate long-term market domination and success. “Plenty of people say ‘I’m Tivoing’ something, when they don’t have Tivo, and never have,” says Karin Hibma, a strategic partner at Cronin known for, among other things, naming the Amazon Kindle. “Google has created a whole world around search, which didn’t exist before they made it available to us, and it really truly is still a superior service. But Tivo wasn’t as effective at completely getting that message out that you were missing the whole Tivo experience, because people didn’t want to buy a Tivo, or they eventually got DVR with one of their other services.” And as Tivo loses favor, so does its verb form. “DVRing” has become a verb itself after the fact.
So should a brand aspire to default verbhood? “When we’re naming things, we do want to see whether the name could become a verb or else a noun that would represent that particular product category,” says Hibma. “Unfortunately, it is a problem both from a legal point of view and sometimes from a brand point of view to have a name that becomes generic. You have to find that fine line between becoming Kleenex or Xerox—or more historically, granola, bikini, yo-yo, escalator, zipper, jungle gym, and many others. They were all proprietary words at one point.”
And again, a company might not have the right action-oriented focus to become a verb, and may not want to. “Just because your name has become a verb doesn’t mean you’ve necessarily become a success,” says Shore. “A lot of brands that aren’t verbs are doing just fine.”
As for Uber, it has become the default action word for technology-facilitated, on-demand transportation, despite the fact that its biggest competitor’s name is a snappy riff on an actual word. “Uber is simply more prevalent and popular than Lyft, and cemented themselves in people’s mind as the brand that comes to represent a ride-hailing app service,” says Shore.
“I think that ‘Lyft’ is a better, friendlier, more wonderful name,” adds Hibma. “But Uber is doing a better job of aggressively developing their business model.”