Branding the English Language: When Brand Names Become Verbs

by Kaylee Richards, Intern

In our digital age, language is more than a means of communication – it signals cultural and technological habits. Our current era sees brand names leaving the desks of corporate leaders and rolling off the tongues of everyday speakers. When you edit an image for social media, you “Photoshop” it. Rather than searching online for information, you “Google” it. These brand names have gone far beyond the desires of any marketing or brand expert, becoming recurring verbs in regular speech and writing.

Dominant companies have not only turned their brand names into common verbs but have earned virtual monopolies on entire markets. As technology and products rapidly evolve, our language develops alongside it, with corporate names seamlessly integrating into our vocabulary. This process can be intentional, as companies may actively encourage the use of their brand name through certain marketing strategies. Alternatively, it can happen organically, as consumers adopt a word as part of their everyday speech.

This linguistic process raises important questions regarding market power, influence and potential economic implications. Brands that become verbs often dominate their industries, leaving little room for competitors to enter the marketplace. As a brand becomes linguistically dominant, consumers may erase the brand names of “second-place” competitors from their vocabulary altogether. 

Background Information

Over the last few decades, brand names entering our vocabulary have become increasingly common. Central to this idea is the process of “generification.” Classic examples of these products are “Tupperware” becoming the household term for food storage containers or “ChapStick” becoming synonymous with lip balm. While this may seem like a step in the right direction for brand recognition, it isn’t necessarily reflected in market share. In a 2019 report, ChapStick had only a 14.3% market share in the lip balm/treatment industry, while Burt’s Bees came in with 19.3%.

Generification is just one aspect of the broader trend of “verbification,” or when brand names retain their value and identity but evolve into verbs in everyday speech. Phrases like “Google it” for an online search or “I’ll Venmo you” for a mobile transaction exemplify this linguistic phenomenon. The impacts of these verbal shifts extend beyond linguistics to consumer behavior. Google is the world’s most popular search engine that offers convenience and accuracy, and its brand name has become a ubiquitous verb.

While some brands get lost in evolving everyday language, others financially flourish from the same linguistic shift. This juxtaposition raises questions about how verbification lends itself to linguistic influence and market power.

How These Words, and Their Brands, Stick

Google revolutionized the way we access information – gone are the days of trips to the library now that you can find almost any fact in seconds with Google. Venmo helped to streamline and safeguard the process of mobile payments, making peer-to-peer payments effortless. By offering vital and effective services, these brands ingrained themselves into everyday lives. 

Brand innovation and user-centric design are critical factors enabling brands to seamlessly integrate into language. By creating products that are accessible and address consumer needs, brands like Adobe Photoshop become industry standards. Humans have not always had the technology to edit photos. The 21st century called for pioneering brands to deliver timely solutions, and companies answered with innovations. 

Some linguistic evolutions show that brand names can break away from their original meaning. When the canned meat Spam entered the marketplace in 1937, it gained immediate popularity due to being inexpensive and easy-to-use. Food options evolved over the years, and Spam’s popularity diminished. However, its repetitive mentions throughout a 1970s episode of Monty Python lent it to becoming the coined term for annoying, redundant emails. While the original Spam offering was timely in the 20th century, the name evolved into a new tech-centric word. Now, the word “spam” spans beyond technology and can signal the repeated use of just about anything. To say, language is continuously adapting to capture societal trends.

Let’s also not forget the power of word-of-mouth fueling verbification. Whether through verbal or online conversations, branded words become repeatedly referenced shortcuts. People tend to adopt these terms when communicating for simplicity. The more everyone relies on a brand name for shorthand, the more momentum a brand gains in the most organic ways possible.

Brands, Verbs and Flourishing Finances

Verbification’s impacts extend beyond linguistics into market and economic influence. When a brand becomes a verb, it often gains powerful market leverage.

In the ride-share industry, the brand name “Uber” has become synonymous with ordering a car service. While Uber directly competes with Lyft, phrases like “let’s Uber” dominate over “let’s Lyft.” This ubiquity lends itself to Uber’s market share. Uber accounted for 76% of U.S. rideshare spending in February 2024, while Lyft comprised the other 24%. Uber’s linguistic power lent itself directly to economic power.

Perhaps no brand has become as ubiquitous as Google, and its unparalleled economic dominance directly reflects that. Google retained an 83.49% market share in 2023, while its competitor Bing held a mere 9.19%. The rarely-used phrase “Bing it” highlights just how powerful Google is – it is hard to picture anything as an alternative. The stark contrast with the widespread usage of “Google it” exemplifies the undisputed winner in both linguistic and economic supremacy. 

Criticisms of this Phenomenon 

While verbification can signal incredible brand identity and economic growth, it also raises valid concerns about monopolization. As brands seamlessly integrate into our lives and language, some argue they may gain unchecked power, leading to a lack of product innovation and higher prices. Consumers may be forced to default to a single product option that does not offer every solution they need. This could gradually erase competition and diversity. 

However, a counterargument to these monopolization and innovation concerns lies in the structure of Google and its parent company, Alphabet. While Google dominates the search engine market, it continues to innovate as a single product under the Alphabet umbrella of companies. In fact, operating under the umbrella name “Alphabet” allows the company to potentially run at a lower risk of antitrust violations. If they were to continue operating under the umbrella name Google but expand their domains, they would attract more attention from regulators. This corporate structure suggests that even powerful brands can foster innovation and diversity while holding a large market share.

Evolving language introduces other issues within cultural preservation and power dynamics. Many brands that achieve “verb status” are U.S.-backed companies. As U.S. products enter international speech, they could slowly erase local linguistics in favor of American expressions. While language evolution is inevitable in an age of constant invention and globalization, conscious efforts to uphold cultural diversity should remain a priority. Where will we draw the line between technological evolution and its impact on global traditions?

Conclusion – These Brands Aren’t Going Anywhere

Verbification has proven to be a reliable measure of a brand’s success. While some brands fade into obscurity and lose distinct identity through generification, others thrive and achieve “verb status.” Terms like “Googling” and “Ubering” not only underscore the cultural implications of powerhouse technology companies but also the incredible economic effects some products can achieve. 

Ultimately, the prominent brands that achieve linguistic dominance reflect the digital age we occupy – one dependent on products like quick search engines, mobile peer-to-peer payments and face-transforming editing tools. Brands like Google, Venmo and Photoshop provide indispensable services that the 21st century demands and consumers rely on.

As we continue to navigate the complicated intersection of culture, linguistics and economics, brand names are proving to be much more than just labels, but rather a reflection of the zeitgeist and current consumer trends. 

When the next great product enters the market, it will take a lot of brand power to compete with some of the “verbified” brands around the world. These powerful brand names have transcended their original purposes to cement their legacies in our history and in our dictionaries.