NEW YORK — Apple is on the verge of doing what few others have: change the English language. When you have a boo-boo, you reach for a Band-Aid, not a bandage. When you need to blow your nose, you ask for Kleenex, not tissue. If you decide to look up something online, you Google instead of search for it. And if you want to buy a tablet computer, there's a good chance there's only one name you'll remember.
"For the vast majority, the idea of a tablet is really captured by the idea of an iPad," says Josh Davis, a manager at Abt Electronics in Chicago. "They gave birth to the whole category and brought it to life."
Companies trip over themselves to make their brands household names. But only a few brands become so engrained in the lexicon that they become "genericized" - synonymous with the products themselves.
It's one of the biggest contradictions in business. Companies spend millions to create a brand. Then, they spend millions more on marketing that can have the unintended consequence of making those names so popular that they become shorthand for similar products, which can diminish a brand's reputation.
"There's tension between legal departments concerned about genericide and marketing departments concerned about sales," says Michael Atkins, a Seattle trademark attorney. "Marketing people want the brand name as widespread as possible and trademark lawyers worry ... the brand will lose all trademark significance."
It doesn't happen often and those that do typically are inventions or products that improve on what's already on the market. The brand names then become so popular that they eclipse rivals in sales, market share and in the minds of consumers. And then they spread through the English language like the common cold in a small office.
"There's nothing that can be done to prevent it once it starts happening," says Michael L. Weiss, professor of linguistics at Cornell University. "There's no controlling the growth of language."
A company's biggest fear is that their brand name becomes so commonly used to describe a product that a judge rules that it's too generic to be a trademark. That means that any product - even inferior ones - can legally use the name. A brand usually is declared legally generic after a company sues another firm for using its name and the case goes to a federal court.
Drug-maker Bayer lost trademarks for the names "aspirin" and "heroin" this way in the 1920s. So did B.F. Goodrich, which sued to protect its trademark of "zipper" in the 1920s after the name joined the world of common nouns. Similar cases deemed "escalator" to have become generic in 1950, "thermos" generic in 1963 and "yo-yo" in 1965.
To prevent their names from becoming generic, some companies use marketing to reinforce their trademarks. For instance, after its brand name started becoming commonly used to refer to adhesive bandages, Johnson & Johnson changed its ad jingle from "I'm Stuck on Band-Aid" to "I'm Stuck on Band-Aid brand."
Kleenex uses "Kleenex brand" instead of just "Kleenex" on its packaging and in marketing and places ads to remind people Kleenex is trademarked. And the company contacts some people who use Kleenex generically to refer to tissue in order to correct them.
"We've worked very hard to keep 'Kleenex' from going the route of 'escalator' and 'aspirin,' " says Vicki Margolis, vice president and chief counsel, intellectual property and global marketing, for Kimberly-Clark, which owns Kleenex. "If we lose the trademark, people can use it with sandpaper and call that a Kleenex."
Xerox is taking a similar route. The company, which introduced the first automatic copier in the U.S. in 1959, has been on a public crusade for decades to keep its brand from becoming generic. The machine's success has led people to start using "Xerox" to refer to any copying machine, copies made from one and the act of copying.
"In the mid- to late-1970s, we ran dangerously close to Xerox becoming genericized," says Barbara Basney, vice president of global advertising.
Xerox has spent millions taking out ads aimed at educating so-called "influencers" such as lawyers, journalists and entertainers about its brand name. A 2003 ad said: "When you use 'Xerox' the way you use 'aspirin,' we get a headache." More recently, a 2007 ad read: "If you use 'Xerox' the way you use 'zipper,' our trademark could be left wide open."
But some companies embrace their brands becoming common nouns, perhaps the best example of this being Google, a company created in 1998 when AltaVista and Yahoo were the top online search engines.
Google, which created a formula that returned more accurate results than its competitors, became so popular that people began saying "Google" to refer to a Web search in general.
Apple declined to comment for this article, but for now it has a majority of the tablet category, which includes Amazon's Kindle Fire and Samsung Electronics Co.'s Galaxy Tablet. The iPad accounted for about 73 percent of the estimated 63.6 million tablets sold globally last year, according to research firm Gartner.