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Name That (Zombie) Brand

Posted in Guest Bloggers

Losing a trademark challenge is bad news, right? It’s costly, it’s embarrassing, and it can damage a brand’s reputation.

And yet in one well-known instance, losing a trademark challenge didn’t hurt a brand at all. In fact, it ensured the brand’s immortality.

The product name I’m thinking of existed for just three years in the 1990s before the death-dealing trademark challenge. The company name survived in slightly altered form; the product name was replaced by a series of successor names.

Now, more than eleven years after that legal defeat, the original product name is still used, erroneously but ubiquitously, to describe an entire class of products—products that themselves exist mostly as fading memories.

What’s the product name?

I’ll give you one more hint: it’s a technology brand.

Answer after the jump.

The product name is PalmPilot, the first-generation personal digital assistant (PDA) introduced in 1996 by Palm Computing, then a division of U.S. Robotics. The Palm trademark was challenged by pen manufacturer Pilot, which had used "Pilot" as a brand name for its products since 1918. Palm lost, and since 1998 no Palm product has borne the Pilot name. 

In fact, Palm no longer makes PDAs at all. Instead, it makes smartphones or app phones (Treo, Centro, Pixi), which have subsumed the old PDA category and added innumerable extra functions.

And yet…

"PalmPilot"—sometimes rendered as Palm pilot or palm pilot—refuses to die. Here are a few examples from 2009 alone:

[A]s Professor Tushnet of Georgetown Law School has documented for her trademark law class, a 2004 Palm pilot [sic] ad campaign included the catchy slogan: “go places, google things.”

—"The Power of the Brand As Verb," New York Times, July 19, 2009. (There was no PalmPilot in 2004.)

"I’ve been reading ebooks on my Palm Pilot for 5 years."  "I’ve been reading ebooks for years, first on a Palm Pilot and now on an iPhone."

—Comments #11 and #13, "Cellphone Apps Challenge the Rise of E-Readers," New York Times, November 18, 2009. (The PalmPilot was never capable of being an e-book reader, and the brand hasn’t existed during the last five years.)

Someone apparently removed a screen to a ground-level window and took two Palm Pilot PDAs, valued at $400 each.

—"The Grinch Who Stole the Snow Blower," in The Local, the New York Times‘s New Jersey blog, December 22, 2009. (Even as antiques, PalmPilots probably wouldn’t be valued at $400.)

I don’t mean to pick on the Times exclusively. Here’s a recent example from the New Yorker:

Next to the chimney, on top of the stove, is a piece of black duct tape with a small silver disk beneath it. Plug the disk into a Palm Pilot, and it will tell you exactly when and for how long that stove was used in the previous month.

—"Annals of Invention: Hearth Surgery," by Burkhard Bilger, December 21/28, 2009. Full text available only to subscribers; abstract is here. Citation is on page 91 of the print edition.

And how about this, from the Cape Cod Times:

In an era when Internet access is available in the palm pilot of your hand, it’s hard to believe that some Massachusetts residents still struggle for a Web connection.

—"State-federal link boosts Web access," December 27, 2009. And just a couple of weeks ago, when former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin was photographed in Nashville referring to notes scribbled on her hand, several commentators joked about the "Palin Palm Pilot." (The Times of London called it "the Hillbilly Palm Pilot.")

I think that’s enough evidence to make my point. PalmPilots: dead. PDAs: dead. And yet PalmPilot/Palm Pilot/palm pilot lives on!

It’s as though all video games were today generically known as Pong. Or as though you called your iPod your Walkman. 

What accounts for this persistence of memory? Your guess is probably as good as mine. Yes, the double-P alliteration is catchy, but no catchier than some other less-successful brand names. PalmPilot was one of the earliest PDAs to be offered, but it wasn’t the first. Maybe the familiar associations of both “palm” and “pilot” helped make the PalmPilot’s breakthrough technology more approachable and thus memorable.

Or maybe it was a pair of New Yorker cartoons—both of them published in 2000, after the brand was officially dead and buried—that guaranteed the PalmPilot’s robust afterlife. One depicted an actual airline pilot (“This is so cool! I’m flying this thing completely on my Palm pilot!”—note lower-case “pilot”). The other showed a hooker leaning into a prospective client’s car window and offering, “For an extra fifty bucks, I’ll let you show me your Palm Pilot.”

Can you think of another brand with such a short life and such a long-ago death that survives in everyday parlance? I can’t.

 —Nancy Friedman, Chief Wordworker at Wordworking

  • Randall Hull

    Nancy, It just goes to show how a strong name attaches itself and becomes part of our vernacular.
    Also, thanks for the walk down memory lane. Not only did I have one of the original PalmPilots, I had the opportunity to work on the product naming for Palm in 1995. We cautioned them against using Pilot, although they really liked it, because we suspected Pilot Pen would defend their trademark. The team at Palm felt it was worth the risk because of the PR value.
    I don’t recommend “poking the bear” as a marketing tool, although there are examples where this was successful in generating mindshare.
    Randall

  • My theory, based on my personal feelings, is that “Palm” is a terrible name, compared to “Palm Pilot.” Palm trees or the palm of your hand, when you start talking about your Palm, it causes a moment of uncertainty and confusion. However as soon as you say Palm Pilot, people know what is being discussed.
    Interesting origins story, Randall.