If you’ve never heard of ‘anthimeria’, Google it before you end up like Kärcher

If you’ve never heard of ‘anthimeria’, Google it before you end up like Kärcher

Courtesy of French politics, Kärcher is the latest brand to find out that becoming synonymous with your category is a double-edged sword.

It was very much politics as usual last week in France. Valérie Pécresse, the presidential candidate of the country’s right-wing Les Républicains party, was touring parts of the Bouches-du-Rhône. It’s one of the southernmost regions of France and, with its widespread immigration from non-EU countries, an area at the epicentre of French nationalism.

“Je vais ressortir le Kärcher de la cave,” Pécresse announced during her 6 January tour. “Cela fait dix ans qu’il y est et il est temps de l’utiliser.”

A simple translation of Pécresse’s words would record her remembering that she had been storing a Kärcher pressurised water hose in her cellar for 10 years and how she now felt that this was a good time to get it out and use it. Pécresse, of course, was not speaking literally about DIY or the general dirtiness of the streets of Marseille. Instead, she was clearly signalling her own credentials as a right-wing politician with little tolerance for multiculturalism.

The use of the Kärcher brand was not incidental. Some 15 years earlier another right-wing presidential hopeful by the name of Nicolas Sarkozy made similar comments while touring the rougher sections of Paris. A young boy had lost his life and Sarkozy had told his grief-stricken parents that he would “nettoyer au Kärcher” (clean with a Kärcher) the whole area to root out the culprits.

So last week’s sudden brand exposure for Kärcher was nothing new for the executives at its Winnenden HQ. Ever since Sarkozy metaphorically applied the brand to the cultural tensions of France, the cleaning company has been applying pressure to French politicians in a largely futile attempt to remove the Kärcher brand from the fraught discourse surrounding immigration and civil unrest. During the 2007 French elections the company went as far as sending all the presidential candidates a letter pleading with them to refrain from using its brand name in any way in the debates ahead.

This week, in response to Pécresse’s comments, the Kärcher Group was once again forced to respond. In a terse statement the company asked both politicians and the media to immediately stop “any use of its name in the sphere of policy which damages its brand and the values of the company”.

That last part is contentious. Modern brand theory would suggest that despite the PR headaches that Kärcher has endured this week, the initial reference to its brand and the fevered discussions across France that followed have been incredibly positive for the company in terms of immediate salience and eventual sales. And while many will wince at the metaphorical use of a high-pressured hose to “clean” the streets of France of its undesirable elements, there can be little doubt that, on top of all that awareness, Kärcher’s functional benefits have been significantly reinforced too.

No other commercial objective turns on the knife edge of success and failure like this.

Idiotic, overly complex brand theorists will take to ‘marketing Twitter’ to suggest that these negative associations will damage the brand, blah, blah, blah. In truth, this is an unpleasant but advantageous turn of events for the company, given both awareness and image have been bolstered.

The company has a long-running, very boring but well meaning global campaign in which it goes around cleaning the major monuments and statues of the world – pro bono – to demonstrate both corporate generosity and product performance. It’s lovely, low-frequency stuff that almost no one sees or remembers, even as they pick up one of the brand’s yellow machines to blow the shit out of something that is fundamentally doing no harm.

Its also a perfect example of how intended brand building, devised over decades and carefully controlled by an army of marketers and agencies, is so often trumped overnight by a combination of luck, bastardy and the eternal ticking of the 24-hour media machine. Is it better to try and generate tiny, controllable ripples in your own brand bathtub or learn to ride the waves of popular culture, Ryan Reynolds-style, as they approach from the horizon?

Anthimeria can be a brand killer

But the bigger and more fascinating question is why Kärcher? I don’t mean why it was used by the French right wing to communicate their hard line approach to street crime. That bit is obvious. Rather, how did Kärcher become a generic noun in the first place?

Madame Pécresse was not referring to her yellow model K7 when she spoke last week. She was using the word as a general reference for any high-powered hose. And she is not alone. In France, and indeed a whole host of other countries that includes the USA and Russia, a ‘Kärcher’ is no longer a specific brand but a very unspecific device that encompasses the whole category and good deal of hinterland beyond it.

It is one of the great ironies of brand building, is it not? Most brands toil at the cognitive foothills of awareness for an eternity, never managing more than a few percentage points of market recognition. Yet at the summit there are a handful of brands that manage to combine scale, heritage, first-mover advantage and brand strategy into such a potent mix that they not only reach the peak of salience, they stumble over it into a strange alternative universe in which their very domination becomes their ultimate undoing.

It happened to Hoover. To Durex, Kleenex and Xerox too. It became an issue for Chap Stick and also for Bubble Wrap. More recently it has happened to Uber, Tinder and FaceTime. These brands have become so prevalent in their respective categories, they have become their categories. And that’s not necessarily a good thing. The fact that Rollerblade, Jet Ski and Thermos all began life as brands, and now experience it as generic nouns with a fraction of total category sales and almost zero consumer recognition, tells you all you need to know about the challenges and pitfalls of ‘anthimeric’ branding.

Yes, that is what you are meant to call it.

Anthimeria – meaning ‘opposite’ and ‘part’ – is the general transition of a word from one part of speech to another. Typically it occurs when a noun takes the form of a verb and this new usage becomes widely accepted. The word ‘chill’ started out as a noun for example – as in ‘I have one’ – but gradually also developed into a verb – as in ‘I am going to make it colder’.

The reverse is also possible. When you ask your partner if they ‘had a good sleep’ you’ve taken a verb and made it into a noun. In fact any word that transverses its class into another qualifies. Shakespeare used to do it about six times a sonnet. In linguistic terms, anthimeria is quite exciting because it’s an explicit example of how language evolves over time.

In commercial terms, however, anthimeric branding is not always such good news. If you have ever walked into a KFC and asked for a Coke, you will know that the long suffering server behind the counter has to remind you that they only sell Pepsi to which you shrug and say, “Fine.” This interaction must literally happen 50,000 times a day, and it’s bad news for Pepsi because 90% of the population ask for a Coke. It’s also bad news for Coke because once faced with the absence of Coke, 89.9% shrug and take the Pepsi.

Upsides and downsides

Anthimeric branding is fascinating for marketers because it is both the ultimate goal of all our efforts, and an immediate issue should we ever achieve it. No other commercial objective turns on the knife edge of success and failure like this.

I remember, at the turn of the century, a senior marketer from Google regaling me for hours about the imminent threat his company was facing because his once agile, hot startup was rapidly becoming – thanks to anthimeria – the common verb for looking anyone up. The company even stepped in at one point and objected when a Scandinavian country wanted to add ‘ungoogleable’ to its national vocabulary. Google actually spent time and money objecting to what a Swede might occasionally say to her brother when she could not find anything out about something. That’s how fearful the mighty Google became about joining the long line of historical footnotes that stretches back to Frisbee, past Granola, and all the way to Trampoline and Escalator. Yes! Escalator. Once with a capital E.

And yet the fact that Google has not exactly suffered in the subsequent two decades since its brand became a generic verb offers us another conundrum about anthimeric branding. Sometimes it totally fucks the brand in question and causes its permanent descent from the top of the marketing mountain. But in other, equally inexplicable, cases it serves to reinforce a brand’s prominence and helps maintain its place at the top.

For every faded, sad story about the Jacuzzi brothers or how Earl Tupper’s ware became gradually more and more generic and invisible, there are plenty of brands like PowerPoint and Jeep that seem to not only prosper despite anthimeria but directly because of it.

For Kärcher it means that their real branding challenge comes not from the French far-right or finding more monuments to proactively sand-blast for the good of society, but from something far more insidious and threatening: language itself. Kärcher is already succumbing to anthimeric branding. The key question is whether this imminent transformation will break or bolster the company’s fortunes. And whether its management team can handle the pressure.