DEBATE: When a brand becomes the category

Babool, rolled out a campaign in an effort to make the brand name synonymous with the very act of brushing one’s teeth. Christina Moniz asks experts to examine the advan

DEBATE: When a brand becomes the category
Brands often have a tendency to convey that they are the best in the category.

Xerox. Bisleri. Tetra Pak. These are just some of the names used interchangeably with their respective categories. Recently, Dabur’s toothpaste brand, Babool, rolled out a campaign in an effort to make the brand name synonymous with the very act of brushing one’s teeth. Christina Moniz asks experts to examine the advantages and risks of adopting such a strategy.

Samit Sinha, Managing partner, Alchemist Brand Consulting

‘Better to differentiate your brand than merge with the category’

While there is a temporary advantage to be gained from becominge synonymous with a category in the early growth stage in the category’s life cycle, it can often become a huge liability for the brand in the long run. There have been many category-defining brands in the history of marketing, where the brand name became interchangeable with the category in popular usage. Some notable examples are Aspirin, Frisbee, Kerosene, Laundromat, Teleprompter, Thermos, Yo-yo and Zipper, all of which were once brand names but are now generic category names. In fact, when typing these words out on your computer, your dictionary will not prompt you to capitalise these words.


Even if the intellectual property rights and the trademarks are protected legally, when a brand becomes synonymous with a category and is being used interchangeably by consumers, there is often an erosion of the brand value. Brands that have suffered in varying degrees because of this are Bisleri, Xerox, Jeep, Walkman and Band-Aid, just to name a few. While is tempting for a brand to attempt to appropriate an entire category, like Coke did with Thanda Matlab Coca-Cola, sometimes, when the reverse happens, it can backfire badly. That is when the category appropriates the brand name.


And since the line between the two is thin and porous, it is perhaps best to eschew the temptation altogether and build a brand by differentiating itself from the rest of the category instead of trying to merge with it.

Naresh Gupta
Co-founder & CSO, Bang In The Middle

‘A brand has to be the leader to own the category’

Brands often have a tendency to convey that they are the best in the category. But is this as easy as it sounds?
The best brand to look at is Fevicol. There isn’t a brand that defines a category like Fevicol does. It has near monopoly in the category, yet the brand never tries to own the category. The communication for the brand is always around what Fevicol delivers. That simple formula has kept it the leading brand for 60 years.


We, as consumers, always love choices. Choices keep us excited and engaged, but brands hate this fact. They would be happy if the consumer never made a choice and lived only by always buying them. Maybe this is the reason that some brands try to build the narrative of themselves being equal to the category.


However, for a brand to be able to own a category it has to be the leader. Category ownership can never be achieved by a brand that isn’t the number one brand. Bisleri can do it as it leads the category. Xerox became the category as it was the number one brand.


This isn’t easy for a brand that is much smaller than the leading brand. Any such attempt will never be able to drive traction. Often the consumers do not like a brand that tries hard to be clever and dumb down the audience.

Dheeraj Sinha
CEO, Leo Burnett South Asia & Chairman, BBH India

‘A brand synonymous with a category becomes the default consumer choice’

In a market like India, across categories, we are at the stage of building category behaviours. From hygiene products and digital payments to e-commerce and content streaming, we are in the process of building new behaviours. Brands that play the leadership game by owning the category codes and sit at the top of the pyramid will become the top brands by default. Brands that become synonymous with the category become the default choice. Indian consumers find solace in numbers. If more people are choosing something, it must be the best option. Indians would rather not lose out on the best option than consider standing out by choosing the less popular one.


That is why in India, leadership brands hold more market share than challenger brands. The top three brands by default own 60-70% of the market share. Therefore, brands such as Amazon, Spotify and Maruti, who are the leaders in their category, will only keep growing.


To summarise this with an analogy, Indians love to stand in long queues. Even if there is a counter with a shorter queue, it is likely that people will chose the one with a bigger crowd — rationalising that if everyone is at a particular counter, then that is the correct place to be. A similar mindset is reflected in selecting brands. So, making yourself synonymous with a category from the brand point of view is only advantageous in India.

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