Why Kleenex wants you to call it a tissue (kinda)

The names Kleenex, Band-aid, Duct tape, and Aspirin all are somewhat interchangeable with the category of products they represent. In a parallel universe the manufacturers would greet this with unbridled joy. After all, you need to capture a lot of mindshare to have your brand name (Band-aid, for instance) stand in for the product category’s name (adhesive bandage). But unfortunately, after a certain level that success is a bad thing because of our legal system.

In U.S. law, as well as in many other countries, once a brand name has come to represent the category as a whole it loses trademark protection unless the company that owns the trademark takes active steps to counteract the trademark erosion. If they fail, anyone will be able to use their name. In fact, that has already happened to Aspirin.¹ It’s also happened to cellophane, escalator, linoleum, videotape, and trampoline, all of which previously referred to specific brands. It’s also happened to hoover. And jacuzzi… The list could go on for quite a while.

What steps can brands take to prevent this genericide? Two examples stick out. In 2003 Xerox produced an ad that read “When you use ‘Xerox’ the way you use ‘aspirin,’ we get a headache.’” Band-aid also made a subtle change to their jingle from “I am stuck on Band-aids, ‘cause Band-aids stuck on me” to “I’m stuck on Band-aid brand, ‘cause Band-aids stuck on me”. For now those efforts seem to be enough.

Most recently this has been an issue for one of the biggest companies in the world: Google. They must have gotten very nervous when the term google was adopted as a verb. Which explains their efforts to keep it out of the dictionary. Eventually, they were successful in getting the Oxford-English dictionary to restrict the meaning of “google” to using the Google search engine only. In the decade since it seems like their efforts were worthwhile as googling something has acquired a much more specific colloquial meaning.

One does have to wonder just how successful these companies would like their efforts to be though, because they’re discouraging a lot of free advertising.


  1. Because of the split legal system aspirin has become generic in the U.S. but is still protected elsewhere.

The Psychology behind Characters and Mascots

I’ve always enjoyed looking at the intersection of psychology and advertising. A particularly interesting overlap is brands’ use of fictional characters as mascots. Why did Geico invent a gecko to sell insurance, for instance? And why do they keep rolling out new commercials for him?

The common explanation is that using mascots can set products apart and help consumers identify with the brand personality. The gecko certainly helps us remember Geico, just as Mayhem helps us remember Allstate and Flo Progressive. However, individuation is far from the only reason for mascots.

In addition, two human biases underlie the success of advertising icons. On the one hand, humans have a preference for the familiar. In fact, there is a bias called the mere-exposure effect, which is the preference people display for things simply because they have encountered them before. This is no secret in the advertising world. In fact, Leo Burnett whose agency created the likes of Tony the Tiger, the Jolly Green Giant, the Pillsbury Doughboy, and the Marlboro Man once said “None of us can underestimate the glacier-like power of friendly familiarity.”

The mere-exposure effect makes sense in evolutionarily terms, but it also plays out in our purchasing decisions. If you need tissues, for instance, would you be more likely to buy Kleenex or Joe Blow’s Mighty Nose Wipes? Probably Kleenex. All else equal, purchasing the familiar brand feels safer.  Indeed, the mere-exposure effect plays a large role in our otherwise nonsensical  preference for branded options over their generic counterparts. But, if our preference for the familiar is so strong why don’t companies just show the same ad over and over and why do they make changes to product lines?

It’s for the same reason most of us don’t watch the same movie day after day, or eat the same meals. Working in opposition to the mere-exposure effect is our need for the novel. We habituate to old stimuli. In a larger sense, we need stimulation and we actively search for it. In psychology this is known as sensation seeking or novelty seeking behavior. Basically, companies need to make new ads because we stop responding to the old ones.¹

When you combine the preference for the familiar with the need for the novel it becomes clear why brands use mascots. They are trying to have the best of both worlds. By putting a familiar character in a new situation you can increase the audience’s’ interest compared to running an old ad, and you’ll have the benefit of having a familiar (more liked) character. With every good commercial the brand can add more and more favorable thoughts to the character and thus to the brand itself.


  1. At least for the time being. As time goes on we get a bit more receptive to old stimuli again. This dishibuation helps when brands play with nostalgia.