Why Product Category Names Matter to Marketers

Molly Soat
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Product Category Lead
Key Takeaways

What? Product category names are vital to effective marketing.

So What? Marketer's may underestimate the role the category name plays in their strategies.

Now What? Take a hard look at the name commonly used to describe your brand's category. Are there insights that may help you gain competitive advantage?

​At the AMA Marketing & Public Policy Conference in San Luis Obispo, California on June 24, Ross Petty, a lawyer and professor at Babson College in Boston, presented a paper called “Product Category Names: Selection, Strategy and Control.” 

Product category names—think smartphone, potato chip and bicycle—are vital to effective marketing, Petty says. After all, how can you present an effective value proposition without a general awareness of what a product is and why it’s important to a consumers’ life? Therefore, Petty recommends that even competing companies should rally around cohesive product category names. 

When a company is ideating a new product, the team typically comes up with three initial concepts: the company name, the brand name and the domain name. But what about product category name? Petty says that the category name has traditionally been thought to be out of marketers’ control, since you can’t trademark a generic product name. But through careful planning and an ounce of forethought, Petty says, marketers can make sure that they not only help strengthen a product category but also use that category to boost brand perception.

Certain brands-turned-product-categories serve as cautionary tales for marketers, Petty says: shredded wheat, corn flakes and trampolines all started as brand names whose trademarks lapsed for too long and, thanks to their ubiquity, we’re not allowed to be trademarked again since they were at that point considered product category names. On the flip side, brand like Kleenex, Chap Stick and Highlighter have maintained a tight hold on their common-name brand names.

Petty lays out a few steps that marketers can take to make sure product category names are not usurped or denigrated by products that run too far afield.

  • “When introducing a new type of product,” Petty says, “marketers typically (and should) identify category label and distinguish it from their brand name.”

  • “Using what ultimately is the accepted category name may help with consumer acceptance of new products within that category.”

  • “If uncertain, firms can use multiple category names in their advertising or gamble on committing to one.”

If using the correct category name can enhance marketing success, Petty posits, what are ways to control rival use of category names? He presents four:

  • Become the registrar for .categoryname domain names via a generic top-level domain (gTLDs) administered by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority. 

  • Register a Collective or Certification Trademark.

  • Lobby the government for a Deception/Identity Standard or sue for misleading advertising.

  • Seek to protect appropriate Geographical Indicators.

There are three main public policy issues to consider as product category names are used, expanded and possibly arbitrated over:

  • The primary justification for restricting category name use is the prevention of consumer deception as to product characteristics rather than brand name.

  • However, freer use of category names can enhance competition and consumer choice.

  • New domain name programs, like Amazon’s .book domain name, run the risk of dominating a market through exclusive registration policies.

Ross Petty’s “Product Category Names: Selection, Strategy and Control,” was presented at the Marketing & Public Policy Conference on June 24, 2016 on the campus of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Petty's article with Kathleen Seiders, Obesity and Role of Food Marketing: A Policy Analysis of Issues and Remedies (2004) won the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing's Thomas C. Kinnear Award in 2004. 

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Molly Soat
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