No one ever Yahoo’d—The fallacy of pre-verbing a brand name (Part 1)

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We “google” everyday. We “tweet” incessantly. And we might “TiVo” several times a week. Some of us old fogies even “xeroxed” and “videotaped” things once upon a time. In England people still “hoover” the floor. We like “swiffering” better than mopping. Back in the ‘80s, many of us enjoyed “rollerblading.” And we all still “zip” things up—not just jackets.

But all of us have yet to “bing” or “yahoo.” Why is that?

Yahoo tried hard to turn their brand name into a verb long before Google became one. Many of us must remember the “Do you Yahoo!?” campaign. But it didn’t work.

It’s because, unlike Yahoo! and Bing, brand names like Zipper, Xerox, Videotape, Rollerblade, Google and Swiffer represented obviously new and different experiences—in some cases almost magical experiences. But the operative word is “obviously.”

Was “rollerblading” an obviously different experience than roller-skating? Absolutely. Was the Hoover vacuum with its newly invented rotating brush obviously different? Clearly. Was Google an obviously different experience than other search engines when it first launched? Most everyone would answer, emphatically, yes! It wasn’t a technical step-change in performance. It was obviously magic.

Swiffer was magic too. And that’s why we love “swiffering” instead of mopping. Same goes for TiVo, Xerox and the like. The experience delivered by these brands was significantly and obviously different enough to warrant no other description or “verb” than that of the brand name itself.

Can Bing outperform Google in search? We’re not sure yet. It’s not obviously clear to the user. Maybe it’s a technical, nuanced and perceptually nominal difference—one that many of us can easily miss. I don’t see a difference. I can’t speak for everyone, of course.

But Steve Ballmer is said to have liked the name Bing because of its ability to “verb-up.”

That article was written in 2009. And I have yet to hear that anyone is “binging” anything. Not that Bing isn’t a great name—I think it is! It’s distinctive. It’s memorable. It’s active and it’s fun. And, if the experience were different enough, I’m sure people would “bing” things.

But how many times have you heard a marketing person or even an executive like Steve Ballmer say: “We need a brand name that will lend itself well to being used as a verb—yeah, that’s right, we need to give the consumer a verb!”

If you ask me, you can’t just “give it to them.” Your name will only “verb-up” if the experience you deliver is obviously different and, by the way, better. And, there’s still no guarantee. It’s up to the consumer.

And when it comes to “verbing,” the consumer often does things we wouldn’t expect. There are a number of “verbed” brand names out there that are not real verbs at all. For example, in the beginning, people “blackberried” each other. Go figure.

Again, it’s not about the word itself. It’s about the experience. Do something obviously different—something better. Create some magic. And then, and only then, consumers might decide to use your brand name as verb.

Here’s another noteworthy point: Many of the names that actually “verbed-up” were neologisms—a fancy term for made up names. It is no coincidence that many of the “verbed” brands are coined names, like TiVo and Xerox. That’s because, by fact of being made up, they suggest something totally new—a new way to do something. Compound names like Rollerblade and JetSki fall next in line. Why? Because they represent new ideas too. Jets and skis existed. But a JetSki is a new thing that Kawasaki brought to the world.

By the way, part two of this blog post will consider the merits and pitfalls of “verbing” a brand name in the context of trademark protection—a subject often referred to as “genericide.”

Nikolas Contis is global director of naming for Siegel+Gale.

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