"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. In fact, it's estimated that fewer than 5 percent of U.S. brand names become generic. 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.
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.