When classic becomes generic

The EU trade proposal to protect products bearing geographic indicator terms (such as ‘Champagne’) has generated a bit of lively discussion here at Rowland around what makes brands unique.

It is arguable the ship has sailed on fully protecting those regions from so-called trademark infringement. Foods and beverages like Prosecco have had centuries to generate a level of ‘brand’ familiarisation that results in an item (or its famed location) being so synonymous with that general classification of product that it becomes the generic name.

While you might think this level of recognition is a good thing, companies must act to protect their branded products and services from genericisation, as this phenomenon makes it extremely hard to legally protect a name and trademark so that it stands out among competitors. Once-unique brand names such as Band-Aid, Velcro, and Escalator learnt this the hard way.

But what about visual brand symbols and logos? Not everybody knows the Red Cross zealously fights to protect its signature emblem — long-synonymous with anything remotely ‘medical’ — from appearing on everything from drugs to first aid kits, and even novelty nurse party costumes. The organisation seeks to preserve the symbol’s global recognition and functional integrity as the vital, apolitical sign of life-saving care during times of war and other crises.

Many brands and names that evolved into generic names (or ‘eponyms’) did so because at their time of inception, their product or approach was so new or groundbreaking that no widely known classification existed to describe it.

With visual brand marks and symbols, the flip side of this is the generic logo. A generic logo’s lineage can probably be traced back to an innovative, well-thought-out mark (the archetypal example of the Nike swoosh). But while Nike has taken pains to protect and ascribe its symbol with deep and enduring meaning over time, the many and repeated curved line/arc/circle imitations it spawned have proved incapable of standing out in a packed marketplace. Barely distinguishable from a vast pool of similar-looking devices, they become so divorced from meaning they can almost be ascribed to anyone or anything.

Of course, many creatives bemoan the existence of such generic, stock logos. But they prove, in their own odd way, that a brand’s equity is grown over time through association with built or ascribed qualities in the hearts and minds of its audience. Those seeking a new brand might be tempted to draw on generic logos with their well-trodden tropes because they look familiar, comfortable and ‘fit for purpose’. But fitting in is counter to the logic of brand. To avoid ‘generic’, organisations need to be taken on the journey of not only discovering what makes their brand unique, but finding the right ways to say and show it.