Word Of The Month: Brand

This month, a US Federal District Court judge will rule on whether or not Microsoft has the right to trademark the term Windows. Lindows.com, a maker of Linux computer operating systems, has asked the judge to summarily dismiss a lawsuit against them in which Microsoft claims that Lindows.com is infringing on their trademark and brand. For their part, Lindows.com claims that windows was in common use as a computer term for rectangular graphic user interface displays before 1983 when Microsoft began marketing their Windows brand and that no company has a right to exclusive use of common English words.

As a result, brand is the word of the month. A brand is the name of a product or company, a trademark. By extension, the brand is also the values that customers and the public associate with a product or company. The term comes from the practice of literally branding products, or the casks and crates that contain the product, with a hot iron. The idea of brand as a marketing tool is relatively recent, only dating to 1827. Brand name dates to 1921. Brand image appears in 1958 and brand loyalty a few years later in 1961.

Even more recent is the verb to brand. The sense meaning to burn with a hot iron dates to the 15th century, but the marketing verb is very recent. Branding, to a marketer, is the process of building a positive corporate and product image in the minds of the public.

The word brand is found in Old English and originally meant fire or a burning piece of wood. It is from this that we get to brand, meaning to burn a mark into something. The term brand new also comes from this, being something still hot from the forge or furnace where it was made.

Brands, or at least their verbal and graphical expressions, are one of the three types of intellectual property. The term intellectual property, or as it is often abbreviated IP, only dates to 1845 and is American in origin, although the legal concept of intellectual property is much older. Intellectual property consists of patents, copyrights, and trademarks. Patents (1588) protect physical objects or processes. The term is a clipping of letters patent, which were open letters from the crown conferring some specific right upon an individual, such as the right to exclusively manufacture a product. Copyrights (1735) protect expressions of ideas, verbal, graphical, or musical. Both patents and copyrights extend protection for a limited period.

The third type, trademark (1571), is different. Trademarks, the term coming from the marks placed on a product to identify its manufacturer, are of unlimited duration, but they must be used continuously and must be defended when challenged by competitors.

This last makes trademarks an interesting study in onomastics, or the study of names. Many brand or trade names have interesting histories. Many, perhaps most, come from the names of the inventors. But there are many that do not, acquiring their brand names from any number of odd sources. In the paragraphs that follow, we will discuss a few of these.

Aspirin was originally a trade name used by the German firm Bayer, aspirin is from the German Acetylirte Spirsäure + an -in suffix. The German term is translated as acetylated spiraeic acid, a.k.a. acetylsalicylic acid. The drug was invented by Felix Hoffman in 1897. Bayer obtained the German trademark on aspirin in 1899 and put the product on the market in 1914. Aspirin is still a registered trademark of Bayer in some 90 countries, but not in the United States, France, or Britain. Britain and France, who were fighting a war with Germany at the time, never recognized the trademark at all. When the United States entered the war in 1917, Bayer’s US operations were seized by the government and put up for auction. Bayer’s US plant and trademark were bought by Sterling Drug Company. As a result “Bayer” products sold in the United States were not made by Bayer, at least not until 1994 when Bayer finally bought Sterling and reacquired the right to use its own name in the United States. Aspirin received a further blow in 1921 when the US Supreme Court ruled that it had become the common word for the substance and could no longer be used as a trademark—setting the precedent requiring companies to vigorously defend their trademarks against becoming generic terms.

Audi automobiles are named, in a fashion, after their original manufacturer. August Horsch started his first automobile company in 1899, with the first cars rolling off the production line in 1901. But in 1909, Horsch was forced out of the business by his financial backers and was forbidden to use his name in any new automobile venture. Undeterred, Horsch founded another company, using the Latin translation of his name, Audi, which means to hear. The first Audi cars were produced in 1910.

Cadillac is another eponymous automobile manufacturer, although in this case Cadillac had nothing to with the company or even with automobiles. The Cadillac Motor Car Company began producing cars in 1903. The company took its name from Antoine de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac, who founded Detroit in 1701. Cadillac is a town in southwest France. The Cadillac company later became part of General Motors.

Castrol motor oil gets its name from a blend of castor and oil. Castor oil was a common base for engine lubricant in the opening decades of the 20th century. Most Americans are probably unaware that the firm is actually British. Castrol was first produced by the Wakefield Motor Oil Company of London in 1909. The company changed its name to that of its product in 1960. Burmah Oil Company bought Castrol in 1966, and BP bought Burmah-Castrol in 2000.

Coca-Cola is generally considered the most valuable brand name in the world. The name was coined in 1886 by Frank Robinson, bookkeeper to John Pemberton, the Atlanta druggist who founded the firm. The name is a combination of two of the drink’s original constituents, extracts from coca leaves and cola nuts. (Fearing backlash by rising anti-drug forces, coca was all but eliminated from the formula by 1902, with only one grain per 400 ounces of syrup. But because Coca-Cola feared charges of false advertising and loss of trademark, these minimal amounts of both coca and cola were kept in the formula until 1929.) Pemberton registered Coca-Cola as a trademark in 1893. Neither portion of the name is considered a trademark on its own, hence there are many soft drinks marketed as colas. Although, courts have ruled that obvious imitations like Cold Cola and Koka Nola are violations of Coca-Cola’s trademark.

The alternate brand name for Coca-Cola, Coke, began life as an informal popular name for the drink. It is attested to as early as 1909. The name became so popular so quickly that by the end of World War I a competitor, the Koke Company, was using a variant on the name to sell a similar soda. Coca-Cola sued Koke for trademark infringement, even though it had never registered the Coke trademark nor used it in marketing. And in 1920 the US Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Holmes, ruled that the name Coke was the property of Coca-Cola and that Koke was guilty of trademark infringement. (Holmes also ruled that the absence, for all practical purposes, of coca extracts in the syrup did not constitute false advertising, paving the way for the complete elimination of coca from the formula a few years later.) The name Coke began appearing on bottles in 1941 and was registered in 1945.

Drambuie’s name has its origins in Scottish history. When the Jacobite rebellion of 1746 collapsed after the Battle of Culloden, the rebellion’s leader, Bonnie Prince Charlie, fled to the Isle of Skye and hid from the English. The next year he sailed for France, leaving Scotland for good. Supposedly, before he left the Young Pretender gave the recipe for his personal liqueur to John MacKinnon of Strathaird in gratitude for MacKinnon’s friendship and help in staying hidden. The MacKinnon family kept the formula and made Drambuie for their personal consumption for 150 years. Then in 1893, Malcolm MacKinnon registered the name Drambuie. The MacKinnons started selling the liqueur in 1910. Drambuie is a combination of the Gaelic dram (drink) and either buidheach (pleasing) or buidh (golden, yellow).

Esso is a representation of the pronunciation of the initials S.O., for Standard Oil. John D. Rockefeller founded Standard Oil in 1868 and within ten years the company controlled 95% of the refining capacity of the United States. In 1911, the US Supreme Court ruled that Standard Oil violated anti-trust laws and was broken up into “baby Standards.” Standard Oil of New Jersey inherited the Esso trademark, but was only allowed to use that trademark in the Mid-Atlantic States and overseas. In 1972, Esso changed its name to Exxon in order to market its products across the United States under a single name. The name Esso is still used in some overseas markets and there are a handful of Exxon-owned gas stations in the United States that still use the name Esso in order to keep the trademark alive domestically.

The name Exxon was the result of one of the largest branding efforts in history, an effort that included one of the earliest uses of computers in market research. Over 10,000 suggestions were winnowed down until only Exxon was left. The name was chosen because it was distinctive and yet meaningless.

Frisbee, the flying disk toy, has a name that is shrouded in anecdote, so much so that the origin of the name cannot be determined for certain. We do know that the Wham-O toy company of San Gabriel, California bought the rights to the first commercial disk, the Pluto Platter, in 1955. Two years later, Wham-O changed the name to Frisbee and they registered the trademark two years after that. It is commonly thought that the name is an alteration of the Frisbie Pie Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Legend has it that tossing Frisbie pie tins about was a popular activity on the nearby Yale campus during the 1940s and 50s. But how the name crossed the continent to California is uncertain. It has been suggested that Wham-O founder Rich Knerr stopped at Yale during a Pluto Platter marketing tour and discovered students tossing the Frisbie pie tins. Knerr believed this to be a superior name, changed the spelling to Frisbee, and marketed the toy under that name. Wham-O altered the spelling to avoid trademark infringement on the bakery, but it didn’t really matter as the bakery went out of business the next year.

Hoover is not the name of the inventor of the vacuum cleaner. Rather, William H. Hoover was a businessman who bought the rights to a vacuum invented by a J. Murray Spangler. Spangler, a janitor in an Ohio department store, created a device to make his job easier. Spangler sold the rights to Hoover and disappeared into obscurity. Hoover, who sold his first vacuum cleaner in 1908, got rich. None of this is unusual in the world of business, nor would it be etymologically interesting, except that in Britain to hoover has become a verb meaning to vacuum a rug. Hoover started exporting its vacuum cleaners to Britain in 1912. By 1926, the verb had arisen. The verb has never caught on in the device’s country of origin, being restricted to British use. Although in the 1980s, to hoover became a US slang verb meaning to greedily devour food and, especially, cocaine.

Kodak is a good example of a brand name that was created completely from scratch. It has no intrinsic meaning, nor does it carry associations or allusions to anything else. Kodak is etymologically interesting because its coiner, George Eastman, recorded exactly how he came up with it, a very rare occurrence in the world of word origins. “A trade name must be short,” wrote Eastman, “vigorous, incapable of being misspelled to an extent that will destroy its identity, and, in order to satisfy trademark laws, it must mean nothing. The letter K had been a favorite with me—it seemed a strong, incisive sort of letter. Therefore the word I wanted had to start with K. Then it became a question of trying out a great number of combinations of letters that made words starting and ending with K. The word Kodak is the result.”

Eastman had formed the Eastman Dry Plate Company in 1881, so called because it produced photographic glass plates with a dry coating of chemicals, as opposed to “wet photography.” Two years later he revolutionized photography by creating the first photographic film, eliminating the need for glass plates. In 1888, his company produced the Kodak camera—the world’s first practical consumer camera. Because of the commercial success of the Kodak, the company changed its name to Eastman Kodak in 1892.

It is only by happenstance that Lego means I study or I assemble in Latin. It was coined in 1934 by Danish carpenter and toy maker Ole Kirk Christiansen. The name is actually from the Danish leg godt, meaning play well. Only afterwards did Christiansen realize the name had positive connotations in Latin. The familiar Lego brick was introduced in 1949.

Listerine is not named after its inventor; rather it is named after Joseph Lister, a British physician who in 1865 became the first to use antiseptics in surgery, sterilizing his instruments with heat and using carbolic acid to clean the wound. Across the pond in the United States, the Warner Lambert Company appropriated his name and first marketed Listerine in 1879 as a general purpose antiseptic, formulated for surgical use. In 1895, it was marketed to dentists. It was not until 1914 that Listerine was sold over the counter—the first commercially available mouthwash. Lister, who lived until 1912, objected to this commercial use of his name. It is not certain whether he objected because he thought commerce was beneath him or because he was never paid for the use of his name.

Maxwell House did not start out as the name of a brand of coffee. Originally, it was the name of a luxury hotel in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1892, a wholesale grocery salesman named Joel Cheek managed to sell his own blend of coffee to the Maxwell House hotel. The coffee served at the hotel gained a local reputation for quality and Cheek began selling the blend elsewhere under the Maxwell House name. In 1928, Cheek changed the name of his company to Maxwell House. The slogan good to the last drop was allegedly first uttered by President Theodore Roosevelt who stayed at the hotel in 1903.

The Mercedes automobile is named after the daughter of Austrian racecar driver Emil Jellinek. He bought a specially modified Daimler Phoenix in 1898 and the following year raced it in the Tour de Nice. It was the fashion in those times for drivers to enter races under a pseudonym, and Jellinek used Monsieur Mercedes, after his nine-year-old daughter. Jellinek won the race and there was considerable interest among other drivers and fans in acquiring a “Mercedes” car. Daimler was happy to oblige by stepping up production and a brand was born. The trademark was registered in 1902.

Mitsubishi is unusual in that the company is actually named after its logo. Mitsubishi means three diamonds in Japanese and the corporate symbol is just that. The company got its start in 1870 as the Tsukomo Shokai shipping company. Three years later it changed its name to Mitsubishi Shokai, the second in long series of name changes. The huge conglomerate was broken up after World War II and now there are many different corporate entities that use the Mitsubishi name, with the automobile manufacturer being the best known in the United States.

Like Coca-Cola, Palmolive gets its name from two constituents of the original product. Milwaukee soap manufacturer B.J. Johnson began selling Palmolive soap in 1898. The bases for his product were palm and olive oils. The soap was a best seller and in 1916 like many companies Johnson changed the corporate name to that of its best-known product. Ten years later, Palmolive merged with the Peet Brothers, a Kansas City soap maker to become Palmolive-Peet. Finally, in 1930, the company merged with the Colgate Company to become Colgate-Palmolive-Peet. In 1953, the company dropped Peet from its name.

Quaker Oats is a rarity, a company that uses religious imagery in its branding. But the company does not and never has had any true association with the Society of Friends (Quakers); they just use the name and a picture of a Colonial-era Quaker. Furthermore, Quakers are not particularly known for eating oatmeal or other breakfast cereals. The Quaker Mill Company was founded in 1877 by Henry Seymour and William Heston. There are two tales as to how the company got its name. One is that Seymour read an article about the Quakers and was impressed by the religion’s values of purity, honesty, and strength. Seymour, who was looking for a corporate name, thought that his company would benefit from those same values. The second story is that Heston saw a picture of William Penn, the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania, and that inspired him to think of positive corporate values and brand equity. The Society of Friends initially objected to the name and even tried, unsuccessfully, to get the US Congress to prohibit the use of religious names and symbols in trademarks. In 1901 the company merged with two other cereal manufacturers to become Quaker Oats. In 2001, the company was bought by PepsiCo, and is now a division of that conglomerate.

Scotch Tape, like Quaker Oats, has no direct connection with its namesake; there is nothing Scottish about it. But in this case the original values associated with the name were not complimentary. In 1925 the 3M (Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing) Company began producing masking tape for use in painting automobiles. In order to reduce costs, 3M reduced the amount of adhesive on the tape. Unfortunately this resulted in a tendency for the tape to fall off half way through the painting process. Customers derisively started referring to it as “Scotch” tape because 3M was so cheap. The name stuck, even though 3M quickly corrected the deficiency by adding more adhesive. Eventually, 3M gave up fighting the inevitable, registered it as a trademark, and turned it into a brand that connotes quality instead of fiscal prudence.

Velcro was invented in Switzerland in the early 1940s, but the name was not coined until around 1957. The name is a French acronym for velours croché, or hooked velvet.

Xerox is a name that is continually in danger of losing its proprietary status as people use it as a generic name for a photocopy. The process of photocopying was invented by Chester Carlson in 1938. Carlson referred to it as electrophotography in his patent application. In 1947 the Haloid Company acquired the rights to Carlson’s patents and the following year re-dubbed the process xerography, from the Greek xero- (dry) + -ography (as in photography). That same year Haloid also registered the trademark Xerox, using the distinctive two Xs (Cf. Exxon). The Haloid Company changed its name to Xerox in 1961.

Zipper began its life as a trademark of the rubber manufacturer B.F. Goodrich. Goodrich did not invent the slide fastener; they had been in existence since 1893 and had generally been known as hookless fasteners. But in 1923 Goodrich started manufacturing rubber overshoes with a slide fastener, which it dubbed Zipper Boots. Goodrich registered the trademark in 1925. Allegedly it was B.F. Goodrich himself who came up with the name, after the sound the boots made upon being fastened. By 1928, the term zipper was already making its way into generic use. Goodrich sued in an attempt to protect the trademark. It won the case, but the victory was limited to the full term Zipper Boots. Goodrich lost control of the rights to the ordinary zipper.

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