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When a brand becomes a verb

In the last English language update 1,000 new words appeared – a meagre number compared to the 1,700 words that Shakespeare introduced into the language. And not only did the bard invent entirely new words and phrases, he was a serial verbifyer (‘to champion’ and ‘to lapse’, both valuable additions to the marketing lexicon, were both penned by him).

Language is important not just to convey commonly understood facts and ideas, but it also frames up how we see the world and what is important to us. (That Inuit have 50 words for snow is somewhat over quoted, but serves to demonstrate the point). So when we turn a word into a verb – a ‘doing word’ as we are taught in school – we are describing what it does and therefore its role in our lives.

Brands have typically been nouns, not verbs. Traditionally, companies put their brands on a pedestal and broadcast a message of product differentiation and attractive imagery. It’s not surprising that brands were objectified, the hope being that we would worship them. The exception was genuinely new products – products that did something new. So, people used to ‘Hoover’ their carpet until lots of other brands appeared and ‘vacuuming’ became the verb of choice.

Xerox was another innovation that became verbified. We ‘Xerox-ed’ – we didn’t photocopy’ until there were many other brands to choose from. You’d expect that Xerox would have been delighted by this appropriation of their name, but on the contrary they tried to stop it, fearing that it would generic-ify (not a word, but why should Shakespeare have a monopoly on making up words) their brand. Knowing what we know now about the importance of brand salience, of the power of mental availability and the effect of being the brand leader, you would wonder if they would feel the same way today.

Back to the 21st century and along comes a verbified brand, Google. So now we ‘Google’, we don’t think “I’ll use a search engine”. And to ‘Google’ has come to mean so much more than using a search engine. It means to seek out, to validate, to inform, to entertain with knowledge, to save time, to prove yourself right (or wrong). It’s become an extension of our memory. It does things and has a role in peoples’ lives, deserving its verb status. What’s more, it generally does actually mean to Google – not to Bing or to Yahoo.

Would you call this a Jacuzzi or a hot tub?

When a brand becomes a verb it translates directly to what the brand does. Brands as verbs speak to a paradigm shift in the last decade about how people feel about brands. The shift is to what brands do – both how they behave and what they do that is useful in peoples’ lives.

How brands behave has a direct relationship with brand purpose – what it stands for (beyond growth and profit) and its overarching beliefs about its role in the world – and there is an expectation that it will behave in a certain way. This fits the zeitgeist of the current generation’s view that brands are what they do. An example is work we have done with millennials for whom Apple is one of their favourite brands. Unlike the previous generation, this isn’t because of its design, its badge status, its general cool – but because it helps synchronise their lives.

So for purpose to have authenticity it needs to translate into how the brand behaves – not what it says, but what it does. For example, Unilever made changes in their supply chain for palm oil so that its stated purpose around sustainability had integrity, despite the fact that most of its customers have scant knowledge about the palm oil issue or its previous use in Unilever brands.

Conversely, we see brands with a stated purpose about being useful or helping people achieve results and indeed their product does make life easier, yet their customer service is far from easy. Customers don’t differentiate between how the product does and how the company behaves – in this case, how it deals with customers. Both have to align with the brand’s stated purpose.

There is a good deal of debate about whether brand purpose delivers a better bottom line, with heavyweights on both sides of the argument.

The best known treatise on this topic is Jim Stengel’s work looking at 50 companies who show above average growth (if you had invested in them your return would have been 400 percent better than the S&P), all of which are shown to be ‘ideals based’. That is, they have a higher order purpose.

Vacuum cleaner, or Hoover?

On the other side is the clinically forensic eye of Byron Sharp of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute who believes that the researchers were seduced by the ‘halo effect’ in their selection of companies, arguing that there are many other companies who have adopted a brand purpose that have not fared well. He also quotes the demise of Blackberry and HP, both of which appear in Stengel’s top 50.

What isn’t in any doubt is that adopting a brand purpose sets an expectation that the brand will behave accordingly. So, what the brand does is how it will be defined, whether or not it becomes verbified.

While the jury is out in regard to Sharp’s view on the value of brand purpose, what the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute has demonstrated is that being a brand leader has significant advantages for growth. Being top of mind is the most important quality a brand can own. Thus, a brand becoming a verb that is widely used – take the Xerox example – would appear to be highly advantageous.

Even more recently, a new breed of brands has jumped straight to verb status. We ‘Uber’, we ‘Skype’, we ‘Airbnb’. And Twitter has declined its own brand with tweeting – I tweet, he tweets, you tweeted. Some of these brands are relatively new and innovative product experiences. But consider how close Xero came to being a verb, and yet accounting systems are hardly new. It wasn’t as though there is a paucity of existing language: we now ‘Uber’, when ‘to cab’ was a perfectly acceptable and widely used verb that could have persisted after the launch of Uber. And in the media space we ‘Netflix’ but we don’t ‘TV3’.  You don’t say ‘I YouTube’, but that’s only because they’ve already created the verb phrase in the name.

‘I Uber’ is a direct connection between what the brand does and its role in your life, forging a closer and more emotionally based connection than ‘I cab using Uber’. When brands are verbs we have an inherently closer emotional connection with them and crucially, emotions drive our decision-making.

Colleen Ryan.

So why do some brands naturally become verbs, and is it a desirable grammatical status for all brands? Imagine if instead of banking you ‘ASB’d’, or you ‘Sealorded’ for dinner tonight and for next year’s overseas experience you plan ‘to Air New Zealand’. It’s possibly too late for established brands like ASB to be verbified, though perhaps they could inculcate into young New Zealanders that they should Clever Kash.

Whether or not brands can dictate their grammatical status, they can control how they behave and what they do. Brands can achieve verb status (metaphorically, if not literally) only if they do something helpful and keep their promises across every aspect of peoples’ experience of the brand.

When brands become things:

Hoover – Vacuum cleaner

Hacky sack – Footbag

Hula hoop – Toy hoop

Jacuzzi – Whirlpool bath

Frisbee – Flying disc

Ping pong – Table tennis

Play Doh – Modelling material

Sellotape – Clear adhesive tape

Vaseline – Patroleum jelly

This article first appeared in the Awards edition of NZ Marketing.
Colleen Ryan is the head of strategy at TRA.
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