Verbification: changing the way we speak

The way we communicate is exponentially changing as ideas, companies and products are introduced into the world. In this hyper-choice, hyper-active way of living, we create shortcuts to keep up. We turn company names into verbs, we create abbreviations (IMO, BTW, LMK) and we use emoticons instead of using words. “There are many conversations that we have today that would mean little to someone from 2005.” Technology is affecting language whether we like it or not.

‘Uber’, ‘FaceTime’, ‘Google’, ‘Instagram’, ‘WiFi’, ‘Photoshop’ – all brand names that have experienced “verbification” – the act of making a noun a verb. They are direct connections between what the brand does and its role in your life. They connote activity and excitement, expand brand recognition and inherently drive decision-making. For start-ups and newer technology companies, it seems that the ultimate compliment is becoming a verb.

The reality is, if a brand name is used as a verb in common vernacular, it’s a double edged-sword. On the positive side, you’ll get more brand recognition, but on the negative side, you may experience dilution and potential trademark issues.

Let’s start with the positives. It’s the best reward when users and consumers talk so frequently about a brand that they need a way to easily describe what they are doing. Imagine trying to describe that you are going to Photoshop an image without using the word ‘Photoshop’ – “I’m going to use a raster graphics editor to edit and compose images with multiple layers, masks, and color models.” Way too complicated, so we stick to the easy description of ‘Photoshop’. It’s a functional shift and the verb now translates directly to what the brand does. Today, words do not need to sound like an old-school verb in order to become one.

At the other end of the spectrum, some businesses fear if their product or brand name experiences verbification, they could lose their ability to protect their brand. In some extreme cases, the name can be transformed to represent a line of products or an entire industry, often known as “genericide”, which can be a nightmare for intellectual property attorneys. Under U.S. law, genericide is a form of abandonment and once a mark becomes generic, it is in the public domain for anyone to use, including competitors. In one case, Xerox ran a campaign asking publishers to not use the name Xerox as a verb when “photo copy” was the intended meaning. The campaign was successful, as Xerox is still a valid trademark.

An expert on trademark law at Georgetown University says, “The risk of [a brand’s name] becoming generic is so low, and the benefits of being on the top of someone’s mind are so high”. Strive to get the market share and brand recognition when you can and worry about your brand being a result of genericide later. Maybe one day your brand name will also be in the dictionary.