INSIDE THE MIX: The increasing generic use of TiVo's name poses challenges and opportunities for PR

It's official: TiVo is a generic word. Up until recently, the evidence was perhaps anecdotal and circumstantial, but two events last week made up my mind.

It's official: TiVo is a generic word. Up until recently, the evidence was perhaps anecdotal and circumstantial, but two events last week made up my mind.

First, PRWeek's August 16 Corporate Case Study on TiVo cited examples of its generic use ranging from AP news stories to TiVo's PR strategies to overcome this trend. Second, I casually noted that I'd TiVoed a program and a PRWeek editor asked if I actually had TiVo. Chastened, I admitted I didn't, I have Time Warner's cable-box DVR, but that takes too long to say. Besides, everyone knows what TiVo means. And that, right there, says TiVo's senior PR manager Kathryn Kelly, is how it always happens.

TiVo, which rightly takes pride in being the first to its market and more technologically sophisticated than its upstart rivals, is taking steps to protect its brand. For a start, it has a form letter it sends to media outlets when they use the term incorrectly. But there will always be people who will see TiVo's message, want the product, then see a mailer from their cable company (as I did) and think, "Cool, it's TiVo and it's cheap," even if they're aware that it doesn't have quite as many bells and whistles as TiVo itself.

Is it really bad for your brand name to be used generically? TiVo thinks so, saying it dilutes the brand and runs the risk of a customer buying a rival brand believing they're buying a TiVo (when it's just a DVR), just like someone buying a Pepsi may think it's a Coke (when it's just a cola).

Legally, too, a company may lose the brand name altogether if a court deems it "generic" - escalator being the classic example. This is why Xerox once advertised the fact that it was a registered trademark with its "You can't Xerox a Xerox on a Xerox" line.

Another risk of your brand being used generically is that any marketing you do may grow your category, rather than just your share. But unless the company in question allows upstarts to usurp its leadership position - unlikely and unforgivable - the result is still growth. But more importantly, it reinforces that brand's leadership position. Al Ries, the venerable marketing consultant, can't recall a single leader brand whose name has grown to be used generically that has ever lost its leadership.

"Kleenex and Coke are number one in their categories," Ries says. "When a customer asks for a Kleenex, they're using the word in a dual way: as a brand and as a generic term. This reinforces the fact that this brand is a leader."

Some of the best brands have been built by word of mouth, and it can be argued that the pinnacle of success for a word-of-mouth push is when your brand's name defines the category. Tissue is Kleenex. Cola is Coke. And TiVo is that great box that obviates the need for video tape.

Even Kelly, TiVo's gatekeeper, admits that there is an element of pride in people using your company's brand generically. For a PR pro to have contributed to that, it can be the best feeling of your career. Until, of course, you have to get back to business.

To submit pitches and ideas for this column, e-mail elly.trickett@prweek.com.

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