How Brand Names Become Verbs

How brand names become verbs

Category defining brands can become verbs:

  • You don’t just search the internet, you google it.
  • You fedex your packages, instead of shipping them.
  • You xerox your notes, versus making photocopies.

These brands are so potent that they replaced the generic product names. But this leads me to a question. Why do some category defining brands become verbs while others do not?

Apple is the most valuable brand in the world, but we don’t use “Apple” as a verb. The same is true with Amazon, Facebook, and Disney. These companies are wildly successful household names, but we don’t use their brand names as verbs.

There’s something unique and special about brands that become verbs, and it’s in their purpose. Purpose-based brands are the most likely brand names to become verbs.

Google was designed for finding information online, and it does the job better than any other service. As Google became ubiquitous in the early 2000’s, the brand started to transition into pop-culture. For example, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the first American TV series to use the brand as a verb in 2002. In the episode Help, Willow asked Buffy, “Have you googled her yet?”

The question made sense, especially in the early days of Google, because it was a purpose-based brand. The service did one thing really, really well: search the internet for answers.

There are dozens of examples of brand names that became verbs: FedEx, Hoover, TiVo, Velcro, and Aspirin, to name a few. What all of these products have in common is purpose. They are purpose-based brands designed to fulfill a job, and as a result customers talked about them.

This leads to the second reason why some brand names become verbs. Successful companies create successful brands, and never the other way around. The success of a brand can tip the name from a narrowly defined solution to a ubiquitous word.

Scale matters when converting brand names into verbs. You need to have a lot of people commonly using the product or service to have it enter pop-culture. This means brands must achieve a critical mass of users before there’s an opportunity to become a verb.

It’s the combination of purpose and popularity that convert brand names into verbs.

Not all brands become verbs, but the few that do create immense brand equity and a substantial barrier to entry. Can you imagine another search engine unseeding Google at this point?