Research-based Advertising to Preserve Brand Equity but Avoid 'Genericide'

Gillian Oakenfell and Betsy Gelb

In the mid 1990s, Xerox Corp, the $20-billion giant of the copier industry reportedly considered a name change (Triplett, 1994). Obviously the problem was not unattractiveness or poor image associated with the Xerox name: it was fear that the name might be ruled generic – indistinguishable in the minds of consumers from the product category and, therefore, free to be used by any copier company along with its own brand name.

Extremely high brand equity, in other words, can be dangerous, precipitating an advertising dilemma. Without the necessary precautions, the high brand equity that an advertiser seeks may be fatal to that advertiser's legal ability to reserve a particular brand name only for its own goods or services. Once a name represents a product category in consumers' minds, the result may be legal action where that brand name is declared to be a generic term. This phenomenon which two authors have labeled 'genericide' (Pattishall and Hillard, 1985), makes the mark available to competitors, who could then urge potential buyers to, in effect, 'Xerox better with a Minolta.' Preventing genericide while enhancing brand equity is a task for research-based advertising, it can be argued. In outlining that case we will:

  1. present a framework for thinking about the problem
  2. briefly review the history of brand names lost to their originators
  3. briefly review the benefits of brand equity, the quest for which can lead to genericide.
  4. propose a research-based advertising approach to walk the thin line between enhancing brand equity and tempting competitors to argue in court that a brand name has become generic.