branding company words versus common words

Those that know anything about business have at least a basic understanding of the concept of branding and how powerful a successful brand can be. There’s a lot to the brand concept that is tangental to this post; the particular ‘brand’ concept of interest here is word branding.

i’m not sure if word branding has a more technical term to it, but when i use it, i’m talking about one of two things. The first use has to do with how a brand can become powerful enough that the company word or name can replace the common name. Back in the day, Sony came out with the portable tape player called the “Walkman” and it had a strong enough brand presence that “walkman” became synonymous with the portable tape player, which is similar to the brand presence of the iPod becoming pretty synonymous with “portable MP3 player”. The brand has such an overwhelming presence that a decent portion of the consumer market doesn’t even consider that there might be portable mp3 players out there other than the iPod.

Using the term “google” for internet search is another great example of this. People don’t “internet search” anymore, they “google.” Common use of that automatically undercuts any other search engine that currently still exists. I imagine that half of the internet users now never even heard of altavista.

The power of that first use of word branding is pretty clear. There’s a second use that’s etched itself into my brain lately (and is the main point of this entry): the branding of a common word so strongly that it creates an association with a company. Whether or not this form of branding is successful or not is still rolling about in my head.

Way back in the early days of livejournal and before the likes of facespace and mybook (um), there ended up being a debate about LJ’s use of the word “friend”, and it was a big enough deal that LJ almost came up with a different term to describe people whose LJs were connected to each other. The issue was that a school of LJ users objected to the use of the word ‘friend’ for LJs that they were following and followed them because they felt that just because they were connecting with someone’s LJ that didn’t necessarily mean that they were actually friends with that person. Calling someone on LJ their ‘friend’ when they didn’t feel like they were actually ‘friends’ could potentially create an awkward social situation. There was also a concern that if two people who were actually ‘friends’ but one didn’t want to share their ‘friends only’ LJ with the other, that it could also create social awkwardness. “How can you call me your friend in real life if i’m not your friend on LJ?” and other similar nonsense.

LJ decided to hold on to the concept of “friend” and that years later became pretty moot as facebook became more popular and used the term “friend” in an even more reinterpreted fashion than LJ did. This is what i mean by “branding a common word” – the word “friend” has a different definition when put in the context of LJ and a further different definition when put in the context of fb, and on the internet, use of the word “friend” can potentially create an association with those websites in itself.

The second and much stronger example of this is the use of the word “like”. when fb first rolled out the “like” concept, it applied mainly to status updates, but it wasn’t too long before anything facebook was “like”able: status updates, shared links, comments left by other people on statuses or photos, &c. It became such a hit that they changed their “become a fan!” concept to “liking”, and it had such an influence that other websites started linking fb “liking” to their website or creating their own version of “liking” for their own website. I wouldn’t be surprised if soon you’ll be able to “like” best hits on a google search.

It’s clear that “liking” in that context is a strong brand with our current fb dominant generation. The question is whether or not creating that brand around the common word “like” is more successful than creating a custom brand that’s fb specific. On the one hand, i feel that branding the word “like” is unsuccessful because no matter how trendy and associative it can be, it’s still so much of a common word outside of the context of fb that it doesn’t create that association all of the time. when you’re in normal conversation and you say the word “like”, it doesn’t necessarily create an association with fb, whereas if you’re in normal conversation and you say “google”, the company and the web engine search immediately pops into mind. (i’m sure that the number one followed by one hundred zeros is misspelled “google” all of the time now.)
On the other hand, filter down to even a broad context of “the internet” and talk about “liking” something and that concept can be immediately associated with fb as the trend setter.

(as a tangent: for me, i’ve never *cough* liked “liking” on fb. it’s something that i will never do except in the case of what used to be “becoming a fan” because it doesn’t fit in my personality to “like” something rather than leave a comment. “liking’ something creates a level of interactive conformity that i already have issue with regarding facebook, and it’s more important for me to take the effort to actually say something, even if it’s just “awesome” and make it my own than to click on a button and have it potentially classified as just one in a throng of what someone else has done.)

Now, fb has rolled out something new: “Questions”. It’s a fascinating feature to me mainly because i feel like there are already so many forums for asking questions outside of the context of fb, but that’s beside the point. The question *cough* that springs to mind has more to do with the brand of it. Why call it “questions”? Why not give it a stronger fb identity? Even something like “AskFB” or even “FB?” with a custom logo using the fb blue and the fb “f” could create a stronger brand and eventually dominate in the same way that “google” or “xerox” does.

as i type this out, a new speculation comes to mind, particularly with this rollout, that maybe the lack of customized branding is a very strict and deliberate company choice. If that’s true, that’s fascinating and kind of funny because if philosophically fb is opposed to the idea of custom branding for whatever reason (off the top of my head it could be to try to keep things simple for all ages of users, but whatever), then it’s possible and maybe even probable that the concept of “like” becoming a common-word brand wasn’t a part of the fb strategy, it was just a side-effect.

Which probably says a lot about how much fb is dominating our culture, but that’s a separate topic.

One Comment

  1. LIKE. :)

    If FB Questions were a separate product from a separate company, they’d definitely pick more unique branding. Having to push multiple brands is a difficult job and usually not worth doing.

    Oh yeah, and 95% of internet users have never heard of altavista!

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