The perils of a brand becoming too well-known
You know your trade mark has really made it when it starts to become used as a byword for something or other. Only a select few ever achieve this, as it requires an extremely developed brand personality and is much more than just a question of wide recognition or public awareness. So while ROLLS-ROYCE (standing for luxury, quality and opulence) and OSCAR (ultimate accolade) have to put up with it all the time, it seems not to be a problem for equally well known brands such as MICROSOFT or BHP.
Some brands will never get there – we doubt that anything will ever be referred to as the REMINGTON [typewriters], SAXA [salt] or HOLDEN [cars] of anything else, leastways not with a straight face. Meanwhile, other brands may be on their way to greatness – with its brand values of honesty, clarity and blunt efficiency, we dream of the day when a parliamentarian gets to be described as the RONSEAL of politicians!
Actually the point about keeping a straight face is a pertinent one – it is of course possible to force ‘bywordness’ on any brand for comic effect. We recall a trend back in the 80’s for referring to anything unacceptable as ‘well British Telecom’ i.e. completely ‘out of order’ (as, apparently, were most of their phone boxes). But you can’t fake the real thing [we’ll try to resist referring to COCA-COLA at this point. Oops…]
From a branding point of view, this issue is very much a two-edged sword: it marks the apotheosis of your trade mark to a very select pantheon but it also risks making it a generic descriptor, devoid of the distinctiveness which ties it specifically to your business. You may also find your trade mark being used in unwelcome contexts or acquiring inappropriate associations – poor MCDONALD’S rail in vain against the prefix MC being used to indicate anything cheap or low-quality – McJob, McMansion, McNews…
An interesting recent example concerns PORNHUB, about which we profess to know nothing except that it is a ‘a vast network of online adult content which attracts a 6 million visitors a day’ [www.theguardian.com 6 August 2015]. Having already caused trade mark ructions by styling itself the ‘NETFLIX of porn’, it has gone further and upset another brand with a series of ads in which its actors refer to PARMIGIANO REGGIANO as being the ‘PornHub Premium of cheese’.
This strikingly backwards compliment, if compliment it is, clearly plays on the conceit that PORNHUB PREMIUM (the business’ paid-for, premium subscription offering, apparently) might already have become a byword for quality and desirability. But it does so by riding on the coat-tails of the Consorzio del Parmigiano Reggiano which definitely has achieved such kudos, even in the USA. The Consorzio has threatened legal action and it has plenty of grounds to do so: trade mark registrations, Protected Designation of Origin status etc.
There are also clear commercial reasons for resisting this abuse of its brand. Convoluted and artificial as it may be, Pornhub’s misappropriation of PARMIGIANO REGGIANO’s goodwill risks diluting the latter’s brand strength and forcing it towards the slippery slope of bywordness. It also rather cheekily suggests that PARMIGIANO REGGIANO is the junior brand in all this and takes no account of whether the Consorzio might prefer not to be associated with pornography. And you have to ask ‘why bother?’ when Pornhub’s other ads are quite witty:
Of course, if Pornhub are paying any attention to their trade mark lawyers, they’ll know that byword status is not something they should wish for their own brand either, but they’re probably banking on there being no such thing as bad publicity (especially when it’s free and/or at someone else’s expense). We reckon the Consorzio owes it to itself and its members to take appropriate action – no brand should have to tolerate such misuse, however cheesy.