Trademark protection and toilets

July 14, 2010

Kleenex. Xerox. Jeep. When a trademark enters the vernacular as a generic term, a business may embark on a questionable strategy to recapture ownership of the mark. Case in point: Jacuzzi.

First off, I’d venture that at least 9 out of 10 would consider the terms Jacuzzi and whirlpool synonymous. Well, for the folks at Jacuzzi ($1B+ in sales; 4500+ employees) this has been a concern. Their solution? Refashion Jacuzzi as a full bed and bath brand with sinks, toilets and mattresses to go alongside their flagship spa products.

Of course, sales and marketing folks don’t always agree with the lawyers when it comes to genericizing a brand. When Microsoft launched its Bing search service last year, execs touted the new name’s ability to “verb up,” hoping to mimic the adoption of “to google” in the vernacular. A trademark is actually an adjective modifying a noun. Pass me a Kleenex facial tissue is correct; taking a bath in a Jacuzzi (as opposed to a Jacuzzi whirlpool) is not. Using a trademark as a noun or a verb puts the registered owner on a slippery slope towards a generic term — which, in the long run, will undermine their exclusive claim to the word.

Jacuzzi Toilets, Cadillac Bicycles, Speedo Drinking Water

That brings us to Jacuzzi toilets. From a capabilities standpoint, I’m sure Jacuzzi jets can deliver superior swirling action in a commode. And as for sinks, well, how hard is it to make a good sink, really? But the Jacuzzi brand would seem to me to be more about luxury and escape than about flushing capacity. While the general public may be completely unaware that Jacuzzi is a proper noun, it is still a phrase associated with indulgence and escape (NOTE: this is pure conjecture with a sample size of 1). There really is no better way bring this connotation crashing down to earth than to stick the name on a toilet. Actually, maybe there is. I first came across the Jacuzzi toilet at Lowe’s — certainly a fine store for all of your bathroom needs, but not one where you’d expect to be whisked away into lavatorial luxury. At Lowe’s, a Jacuzzi toilet just sitting there on the shelf next to a bunch of competitive loos is all about function and price.

The Jacuzzi mattress I actually get — and that is a much more compelling promise, as it claims to employ some proprietary technology to deliver a superior sleep experience. If you are trying to build a brand around a lifestyle, this is the way to go. Seek the higher level benefit of what your brand delivers and then create other means for achieving that. The Jacuzzi product line does extend to radiant floor systems and various spa trimmings — and all if this makes perfect sense.

When it comes to brand stretch, just because you can doesn’t mean that you should. Cadillac should not have extended their brand to bicycles. Speedo should not have extended their brand to water (drinking water!). Garmin has just extended into mobile phones — yet beyond Gamin’s need to defend their turf around GPS, I’m trying to figure out why I’d need to have a global positioning system in my pocket at all times. Often brand stretch works best when there is an emotional (rather than functional) connection to the new category. It’s about an experience, an attitude, a relationship.

Get it wrong and you’ve got to earn that all back — which can be incredibly difficult. In other words, a couple of missteps and you risk flushing your brand down the toilet.

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