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Branding Strategy: Protecting Your Turf

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In a recent trip to the car service centre here in Adelaide, South Australia, I spotted a familiar word on a nearby warehouse. I thought eternit is a generic Indonesian word for ceiling, similar to the word ‘plafon’ (derived from the Dutch word ‘plafond’) that is also common in Indonesia. It turns out that Eternit is a registered trademark for a brand of fibre cement, owned by a Belgian company, Etex.

An old advertisement for “Odol” in Indonesia
(Facebook/ Edwin Siagian via Indonesia Tempoe Doeloe),

This discovery reminds me of my curiosity when consumers use brand names as the term for product categories. Growing up in a mom-and-pop shop in Indonesia gave me many examples from an early age. I remember shoppers asking for kutek instead of cat kuku (nail polish), or using odol as a catch-all term for toothpaste. Kutek is the simplified spelling and pronunciation of Cutex – a brand of nail polish remover and nail polish. Odol is a German brand of toothpaste, still produced by GlaxoSmithKline – known elsewhere as Aquafresh. It didn’t seem wrong when shoppers wanted a tube of ‘odol with the Pepsodent brand’, or rinso with the ‘Dino’ brand – rather than calling it deterjen (detergent). The brand names were used in generic terms as they were the pioneer or the dominant brands in the early days. As an example, Indonesian consumers were introduced to powdered detergent by Unilever through their brand, Rinso in the 1970s. Unilever even used their ads in these earlier years to educate consumers on how to use detergent powder. There are many other examples that are too many to list here – and I’m sure you can probably find examples in your own market.

Growing up in a developing market gave me first-hand experience of category introduction and how consumers could end up calling the category by the brand name. I subsequently discovered the term for this – genericisation or genericide. This phenomenon is not localised to a developing market like Indonesia. Some examples can also be found in developed countries like Australia or the United States. Some of us would subconsciously use Kleenex rather than tissues – or to Hoover rather than to vacuum. We would advise somebody ‘to Google something’, rather than to search online. Before I did my desk research on genericisation, I didn’t realise that Escalator was a brand that belonged to Otis or that Pfizer still holds the registered trademark for Chapstick. I thought these two brand names are category names!

Branding strategy matters

In the past, some companies might not realise how important branding was – or that protecting the name and any elements related to the brand was crucial for the business. This is why Adobe would actively discourage the usage of Photoshop as a verb, to fight genericide and to keep the integrity of the brand name. This explains why Cadbury fought for the colour purple, or why Nestle attempted to trademark the four-finger chocolate for KitKat. These examples are related to why branding matters in the first place – to link the products to the companies that produce them, instead of them being attributed to the competitors, or used as a generic term.

The tango around branding can be found in store brands (or also known as private labels) that mimic the look-and-feel of the actual popular brands. Retailers are careful not to tread too far – and on the other hand, manufacturers are also careful not to be too trigger-happy with lawsuits. After all, they need the retailers to distribute their products. It’s a different ball game in the emerging markets as laws and regulations around trademarks are mostly in their infancy. There is also a lack of resources and willpower to police them. It’s a game of whack-a-mole – you punish one company, three more would pop up the following month.

It’s this discipline to branding strategy that was perhaps lacking in the traditional brand management practices. There may have been a lack of understanding that protecting the brand name and all of its distinctive assets is crucial for the brand’s survival and growth. It’s just as important as proper financial governance, excellent service quality, or efficient manufacturing. Kraft-Heinz discovered this too late in Australia, when it tried to claw back the yellow packaging for its peanut butter after it sold the business to Bega Cheese. After four years of battle, Kraft-Heinz was forced to pay AU$9.25M to Bega in 2021. Another example is the court’s refusal to grant the trademark of four-finger chocolate to Nestle’s KitKat as it is considered common that I highlighted earlier.

Building for the common good, … and growing!

For bigger brands, the challenge to protect the brand and remain clearly distinctive is also compounded by the importance of growing the market. Research shows that bigger manufacturers would benefit more through revenue gains when the market (i.e., the product category) is bigger rather than stealing market share. Thus, companies and big brands may need to let go some of the factors that would grow the market, while remaining rock-solid in protecting the brand and its identity. In the Escalator example, the U.S. Patent Office refused to grant the trademark in 1950 to Otis as they considered “escalator” was already a common word for moving stairways.

We can see examples when big companies (reluctantly or willingly) allowing functionalities or features to be imitated and replicated by their competitors, like the common pinch-and-zoom gestures on smart phones, or Nespresso accepting the fact that its competitors could produce competing coffee pods when the patents lapsed in 2012. This loss of exclusivity did not hamper Nespresso’s growth, as can be seen from this news article. The brand benefits from the market growth – despite the loss of their coffee pods’ USP (unique selling proposition).

For companies, this supports the importance of clear branding strategy in category management – especially for bigger brands. Large companies like Google or Xerox – are strongly monitoring the usage of their brand names to avoid genericisation, and many others are also actively guarding their brands’ distinctive assets. Protecting brand name and its distinctive assets should be central to any corporate strategy. Without any clear safeguarding, a brand name or its distinctive assets may either end up becoming genericised – or misused by the competitors.

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