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Kleenex® Not Wanting to Blow It: Some Steps to Avoid Trademark Genericide

Posted in Advertising, Branding, Famous Marks, Genericide, Loss of Rights, Marketing, Trademarks

This sponsored banner ad is currently appearing in AdAge’s Daily News on-line newsletter:

How many boxes of tissue do you suppose this ad is responsible for selling?

If the answer is none, that is probably fine with Kimberly-Clark since the return on investment for this ad is measured quite differently, I’m sure, given how the frequently misused Kleenex® brand is currently enjoying the lofty status as one of The 100 Best Global Brands. No doubt, Kimberly-Clark would like to keep not only this annointed status, but even more basically, it would like to keep the status as a brand and protectable trademark intact too.

In all likelihood, trademark types are behind this kind of advertisement, or perhaps more properly termed, "public service announcement," and they also are probably behind the "brand tissue" phrase, closely following each use of the brand name Kleenex®. Both measures help emphasize to consumers that Kleenex® is a brand of tissue coming from a single unique source, not a type or category of tissue coming from a variety of different competing sources.

These kinds of precautions are important educational steps a trademark owner can take when a meaningful portion of the public may misuse the brand name as a generic term. They are designed to shape the public’s proper use of the trademark, and, hopefully, prevent the trademark owner’s ultimate fear: Genericide. Indeed, we previously noted Kimberly-Clark’s success to date on this very subject:

[W]hen the public misuses a famous trademark as a generic term and the brand owner risks losing exclusive rights through changes in the common meaning of the term. Avoiding the risk of this happening is something Kimberly-Clark® knows more than a little about, I suspect. No doubt, the legal team at Kimberly-Clark® has done an impressive job of preventing the KLEENEX® brand from following former brands like ESCALATOR, TRAMPOLINE, and ZIPPER, to name a few, into the unpleasant graveyard of genericide.

In the end, however, trademark owner’s efforts aside, the public will decide the issue of genericide, as we have discussed before:

Unlike the kind of trademark abandonment that automatically results from the single act of non-use of a trademark coupled with no intention at that time to resume use of the trademark, the kind of trademark abandonment that is also known as genericide, in contrast, results from a gradual change in the meaning of a trademark or brand to an unprotectable generic term. A change that shifts the meaning — understood by a majority of the relevant consuming public – from identifying, distinguishing and indicating a single source for a particular product or service to a designation that connotes no single source at all, but instead, an entire product or service category with multiple unrelated sources.

So long as the "majority of the relevant consuming public" (more than half) continue to understand Kleenex® as a brand, the exclusive trademark rights will remain intact.

If you read AdAge, congratulations, apparently we are part of the "relevant consuming public," or perhaps you are viewed as someone who has influence on how the "relevant consuming public" perceives the Kleenex® brand.

I hope I did my part here, now it’s your turn.

  • James Mahoney

    Years ago, I had an interesting personal experience with a major consumer company educating me on the proper use of their brand. I had mentioned “vaseline” in an article I wrote for a small town paper. A few weeks later, the editor got a letter thanking her for mentioning the product, but pointing out that in the future, she should use the proper trademarked form of Vaseline(R) brand petroleum jelly.
    Trademarks like Kleenex and Vaseline are worth protecting because even though we all might slip into the generic kleenex and vaseline in conversation and on our shopping lists, the “real” “original” products enjoy a reputation for quality that still distinguishes them in our minds. Somehow, we perceive them as different from all others, and better, so even when we call Smith’s petroleum jelly “vaseline”, we know it ain’t, and suspect it ain’t as good.
    So, to answer your question, Steve, it is money well spent.

  • http://www.duetsblog.com/steve-baird.html Steve Baird

    James, thanks for sharing your experience on the subject.
    It makes sense to me that the money is well spent, at a minimum, from the perspective of demonstrating a trademark owner’s effort to influence proper trademark use and hopefully avoid genericide.
    Having said that, I am not aware of any data on the effect of such efforts, data actually showing that these kinds of efforts have moved the needle, so to speak, in changing how consumers perceive the mark as either a generic term or a unique brand.
    If anyone has data on that point, I’d love to hear from you.
    Thanks, Steve