Corporate Eye

A Branding Debate from the Swiss Army Knife

swiss-army-knifeI read an interesting article on the BBC website this week about the history of the Swiss Army Knife.  Here’s a product that started 125 years ago from humble beginnings and grew into an iconic product.  It could be argued that the term “Swiss Army Knife” has become generic to mean any kind of pocket knife — similar to how Kleenex and Band-aid have become generic terms.  But how did a simple pocket knife become so ingrained into cultures around the world?  And how can your brand achieve similar success?

There are actually two valid arguments — one for and one against — building a brand into a generic term for a product or category.  First, the pro side — a brand that becomes a generic equivalent for a product or category holds tremendous value as it’s the brand thought of first and always.  Next, the argument against — a brand that becomes a generic equivalent for a product or category loses value by becoming more of a commodity that is easily interchangeable with other brands which offer the same benefits to consumers.

So which side of the debate are you on?  Certainly, a brand like Band-aid reaped the rewards from its “generic” status for many years, and today, brands like Google are becoming generic terms (“you can Google it”) that competitors are blatantly trying to counter (e.g., Microsoft’s Bing — have you heard anyone say, “you can Bing it” yet?  Microsoft hopes you will).  I think the value of a brand becoming the generic term for a product, category or action (as in Google’s case) outweighs the longer term negatives of commoditization.

However, the problem is less in commoditization than it is in retaining a brand’s position once it becomes a generic term.  I think once a brand becomes the generic term for a product or category, the powers that be become lazy and sit back to enjoy the ride as the leader having cornered the market, so to speak.  There is the inevitable comfort that being the leader that no one can touch creates within the ranks.  That’s the danger.  Consumers move quickly these days, and a brand that becomes a generic term for a product or category must stay on its toes to continue leading the way and earning consumers’ trust and choice.

What do you think?  Is having your brand become a generic term for a product or category a win or a problem?

Image: Flickr

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Susan Gunelius is the author of 10 marketing, social media, branding, copywriting, and technology books, and she is President & CEO of KeySplash Creative, Inc., a marketing communications company. She also owns Women on Business, an award-wining blog for business women. She is a featured columnist for and, and her marketing-related articles have appeared on websites such as,,, and more. She has over 20 years of experience in the marketing field having spent the first decade of her career directing marketing programs for some of the largest companies in the world, including divisions of AT&T and HSBC. Today, her clients include large and small companies around the world and household brands like Citigroup, Cox Communications, Intuit, and more. Susan is frequently interviewed about marketing and branding by television, radio, print, and online media organizations, and she speaks about these topics at events around the world. You can connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+.