When you need to blow your nose or wipe your face, chances are you ask for a kleenex – not a Puffs or any other facial tissue brand.
Capital K “Kleenex” is a brand name for facial tissues, and is trademarked by Kimberly-Clark Worldwide. But the word kleenex (lowercase k) has become shorthand for disposable facial tissues. It is one of the best examples of a proprietary eponym, a noun – or sometimes a verb such as "zoom" – for when a trademarked or licensed name or product comes to be used to generally refer to all related products in that same category. “I need an aspirin.”
Category Creation – the “Thing”
A proprietary eponym is the ultimate outcome in category design. Someone who is successful in category creation will have their product lead that category. But if a product becomes a proprietary eponym, then it IS the category – like kleenex. The category is defined and named by the proprietary eponym and becomes the “thing.” When we work with clients we always try to look for a “thing.”
Kleenex defined the category of facial tissues by being the first to offer the product. In 1924, the trademark was issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. It was originally marketed as a disposable way of removing cold cream from your face, but the company eventually made a fortuitous change in their marketing.
A few years after the introduction of Kleenex, and taking claim to be the first facial tissue on the market, Kleenex changed its category point of view (“POV”). It started marketing its product as a throw-away handkerchief. It led with a problem that every person has – and more so with men at the time – you want to blow your nose but not have to carry a nasty, germ-infested handkerchief in your pocket. This was the birth of what is still our modern conception of a tissue’s purpose.
By being the first to identify a problem consumers had, that they didn’t know there was a solution for, as described in the book Play Bigger, Kleenex’s team used the cognitive bias, anchoring effect, to cause consumers to create a category in their mind and always store Kleenex as the identifying product for that category. Of course, competitors followed, which makes a real category, Kleenex remained the category leader.
Proprietary Eponyms not Brands
A successful category definition helps the product that is best able to take control of the narrative of the category and give it a name and a definition. The proprietary eponym is the ultimate achievement of that. Brands belong to companies. Categories are a gift to the world.
Proprietary eponyms are all around us, all the time informing how we think about the world. Think about all the words we use to describe the products we buy and interact with. Kleenex is an easy place to start. Velcro is the name of a company that makes the hook-and-loop fasteners everyone calls velcro. Vaseline stands in for petroleum jelly and Q-Tip for cotton swabs on a stick. Think about how we use Advil and Tylenol to refer to the generic ibuprofen and acetaminophen, respectively.
Some proprietary eponyms have even gone past the world of nouns and become their own verbs. When was the last time you heard someone say they were going to Bing something? Never. The act of searching something on the internet is almost always referred to as Googling something. There might be an older person in your office who still says they are going to xerox something even if you don’t have a Xerox brand copier.
When you start to lay out some of these examples you see the power of categories. But these proprietary eponyms are the gold standard of category design. A successfully designed category can still lead to great benefits for your company, even if your product doesn’t become a proprietary eponym.
Category Design and Kleenex
Let’s learn from Kleenex and what made it successful. It was first in the category, the only one on the market. It used the category design process to get there. It gave the solution to a problem people didn't realize they had – what to do to get your cold cream off your face and not soil your wash rag.
Kleenex was seemingly set. It had created a problem consumers didn’t know they had and then created a new category of product to solve that problem. But then it took the category to the next level by leveraging the flywheel that was naturally occurring. It found a new problem its tissues could solve. Runny noses are still related to people’s faces, so it was not a huge pivot, but it took a product that seemed to have limited uses as a cold cream remover and transformed facial tissue into the do-anything implement that it is today by shifting its focus to common colds and allergies.
They advertised the product as a disposable handkerchief (ad above). Everyone already had a handkerchief in their pocket – especially men as they were out of the house and had no other solution during the day – and they were used for everything from blowing noses to wiping sweat from brows to cleaning things. But doing all those things made handkerchiefs gross, and so Kleenex proposed the idea of simply throwing them away. It severed the competition by forcing people to not compare a handkerchief to a facial tissue, but to choose one over the other.
In 2011, almost 90 years after being created, the Kleenex brand is still the dominant market leader as well as the producer of many generic brands, owning the category. And next time you have a runny nose, there's a very good chance you'll think, "I need a kleenex."