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In Scope

Could “genericide” pose the greatest risk for a brand that COVID-19 helped make famous?

Zoom me? I was up zooming all night. I’m going to zoom her tomorrow. We’ve set up a zoom for the book club.

Along with “flattening,” “PPE” and “R nought,” “zoom” is going to be one of the defining terms of the COVID-19 event, something we’ve all said and remember doing.

However, unlike these other examples, Zoom is not merely a word; it’s a brand. More properly, it’s part of the name of Zoom Video Communications, Inc., a California-based provider of an online video conferencing service. And, as the efforts to flatten the COVID-19 curve have forced people around the world to embrace isolation and social distancing, Zoom has become the way to stay in touch.

Simple to operate and, in its basic version, free to install, Zoom has become ubiquitous: widely used by companies, including The Works, universities, churches, school boards, social groups and families, to name just a few, to do business and to stay connected.

Throughout the pandemic, Zoom has been savvy about reaching out to users, working to steadily expand its offering and presence, and as a result, the whole world seems to be Zooming. All of this is reflected in the company’s current, robust $32+ billion market cap, double what it was only six months ago.

So, with all this in its favour, what’s the risk? Genericide. What’s that? Well, the last time you used an app from an App Store, was it from Apple or Amazon? If you see Kleenex on your shopping list, do you make sure the box you buy is Kleenex or kleenex? When you buy Aspirin, does it have to be Bayer, or will any old acetylsalicylic acid do the job? Have you ever googled on Bing or Yahoo?

Genericide is what happens to a brand name when it ceases to represent a specific product or service and comes to represent an entire category – like aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid) or kleenex (facial tissue). For products like these, the impact includes not only a loss of brand equity but potentially even a loss of trademark. Notable victims of genericide include the aforementioned app store, aspirin and kleenex, as well as household names like dry ice, escalator, trampoline, yo-yo and zipper, all former trademarks that are now categories.

In the time of COVID-19, Zoom is the 800-lb gorilla in the room, but it operates in a sector where maintaining technical supremacy can be very difficult. Also, its name is a widely used English word. Of course, that observation could be applied to many brand names, for example, Accord, Alphabet or Apple, and that’s just the A’s.

Zoom is interesting in that it’s a noun and a verb. (We all zoomed well before Zoom was a thing.) And from a brand risk perspective, it’s not inconceivable that “to zoom” could come to represent video conferencing as a general activity, rather than specifically connecting online through the service provided by Zoom Video Communications, Inc.

This whole scenario is the kind of thing that occurs to people who think a lot about brands and who, at present, happen to have a lot of thinking time. There are certainly examples of companies that have fought very effectively to maintain the distinct integrity and relevance of their brands (look up Tiffany v. Costco, if you want a bare-knuckles example), but it can be tough sledding. Rollerblade! Jet Ski!

Could it happen, who knows? But if someone ever asks you to zoom in a Google Hangout, remember – The Works told you first.



Eric Johnson

Eric Johnson is the Director of Strategic Communications at The Works. He is an award-winning strategist and writer with decades of experience in advertising, marketing and corporate communications. He also knows a lot about vintage horror flicks and every single Godzilla film ever made.


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