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How ‘Zoom’ became the ‘Kleenex’ of video calling

The onomatopoeia of the name Zoom helped turn it into a generic—just like Google is for search.

How ‘Zoom’ became the ‘Kleenex’ of video calling
[Photo: Anna Shvets/Pexels]
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What’s in a name? For Zoom, it’s quite a lot.

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One of the reasons why Zoom became so popular, and the reference point for virtual meetings and video conferences amid a yearlong pandemic, is because the brand name itself is a strong selling point. It’s helped Zoom become the “BandAid” of pandemic life.

An early pioneer in the video conferencing market, Zoom employs the sound symbolism onomatopoeia, which is when a word describes a sound by imitating the actual sound. According to the field of linguistics, sound symbolism is a theory which hypothesizes that there is a relationship between sound and meaning in multiple forms.

By definition, zoom means: (for a person/thing) to move or travel very quickly, (2) (of a camera or user) to change smoothly from a long shot to a close-up or vice versa, or (3) to express sudden fast movement. Hence, the word itself takes on the meaning of “fast” and “sudden” and lends itself to the action of changing the focus of a camera. The brand name directly connects with the meaning of the word. Plus, brands with names that symbolically fit their purpose—like through onomatopoeia—are more memorable, according to a 2017 study by Colby College psychology researchers Melissa A. Preziosi and Jennifer H. Coane.

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The name Zoom is also successful because it quite simply begins with the letter z, which is a fricative: a consonant sound that blocks the passage of air moving through the mouth, generating audible friction. Brand names containing fricatives are perceived as smaller, faster, lighter, sharper, and softer. A 2014 study by business researchers Richard R. Klink and Lan Wu notes that the letter communicates efficacy.

The genericization of Zoom’s offering in the marketplace and increased demand caused by the pandemic has also contributed to the company’s success. When applied to brands, genericization is a term that refers to a socially embedded linguistic process whereby brand names become representative of a product category itself—such as Xerox, Google, Kleenex, and BandAid.

When the pandemic hit various parts of the world, employees began working from home, triggering firms to purchase corporate-quality video conferencing options. Meanwhile, individuals started looking for ways to socialize and avoid loneliness, so online searches for cheap or free video conferencing offerings soared. When the demand increased, those brands that already had a good showing in the marketplace and a reliable product were able to get “seen.” In fact, googling the terms video conference, video conferencing, and group video meeting, to name a few, all lead to an advertisement for Zoom at the very top of the results. Clearly, the company paid for search advertising, search engine optimization, and Google Adwords.

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At its worst extreme, genericization can lead to genericide, or a complete dilution of the brand itself, meaning that consumers no longer associate the product category with the actual brand and its specific and distinguishable characteristics. When that happens, the brand can be replaced by a truly generic product while the term utilized might still be the trademark brand name. But this extremely negative outcome is not the norm. Instead, marketers argue that Zoom, as a relatively early mover in the marketplace, can gain competitive advantage from genericization, if coupled with a strategic marketing and advertising approach.

On the other hand, even with all the advantages of becoming a brand leader, Zoom now has to contend with the downsides of video conferencing as a result of a yearlong pandemic, such as Zoom fatigue and Zoom bombing. Zoom’s success in the future might depend on whether it can combat the stagnation associated with video calls. I believe that when brands innovate ways to combat their products’ potential negatives to humanity, they can achieve long-term success. Companies should be asking, How do we make humans better? How do we provide them with a service that can help them without hurting them?

Zoom combined several approaches to becoming a dominant leader in the video teleconferencing branding space, first by pioneering a simple-to-use offering and marketing it to both businesses and consumers. This simplicity in combination with strategic search marketing led to genericization of the brand name. But the name itself and its use of sound symbolism theory is also a key and overlooked piece of the company’s success.

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Anjala S. Krishen is a professor of marketing and director of MBA programs at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.