[Portions of this piece first published in my Fast Company article of January 2013.]
Yes, Zoom, the videoconferencing platform, has arrived. It is a “thing.” It has millions of users and an eye-popping share price. Many of us have the app on our phones, our tablets, our laptops and Zoom seems to be everywhere in the business and popular press.
All important stuff. But what really makes it a touchstone brand in 2020 is something else: We’ve started to make it a verb. As in, “Let’s Zoom on Tuesday morning.”
FedEx. Uber. PDF. Facetime. Skype. Tweet. Waze. And the mother of them all, Google. These are all brands or products that we use not only as nouns but also as verbs. Call it the verbification of product names and mostly it’s a very good thing indeed. It denotes a casual intimacy, a personal connection between a consumer and the product or the brand.
Taser. Velcro. Superglue. Rollerblade. Sometimes we consumers just latch onto a dominant brand or product and verbify it. Rarely is this a purposeful marketing strategy — it’s just something that happens.
Some but not others
But it’s not clear why this happens to some products but not to others, even if they have similar product characteristics. Why do many people use the verb “Photoshop” (a product by Adobe) to mean any type of digital image manipulation but we don’t use “Word” (a product by Microsoft) as a verb to mean any type of word processing? We also don’t Excel, Drop-Box or OneDrive.
And despite the ubiquity of PowerPoint, I don’t recall anyone ever using it as a verb (“I’m going to PowerPoint my presentation”).
We FaceTime and Skype but we don’t Facebook or YouTube. We Google but we don’t Bing. In past years we would Xerox but would never Polaroid. Why are some popular brands or products used as verbs in our everyday conversation and others not?
Well, no one is really sure. Technically, the etymologists refer to the practice of verbing as “anthimeria,” which means a functional shift or conversion of word use and it’s not a new phenomenon. Shakespeare was known to be a serial verber, for instance.
Verbification can be creative and clever but in the business world it can be abused and can become buzzword-speak. We ballpark, we partner, we value-add, we eyeball, fast track, leverage, and we green light. And in meetings we flip chart and white board. In recent years many have started using “dialogue” as a verb (ugh) and I’ve also heard the cringe-worthy use of “architect” as a verb.
Who did this first?
Perhaps the first brand to consciously verbify as part of its marketing strategy was Simoniz, the car wax. Back in the 1920s the company’s tagline was “Motorist wise, Simoniz” and in the 1930s the Webster Dictionary’s entry for “simonize” was to “polish with or as with wax.” Yup — Definitely a verb.
Similarly, having grown up in Michigan in the 1960s and 1970s, we would routinely use the brand Ziebart as both a noun and a verb (“Did you Ziebart your new car yet?”) to refer to any car rustproofing process.
Sometimes companies’ efforts to “verb up” their brands fail or fizzle. Back in the 1970s I recall a campaign by Kroger which featured a jingle that sang out “Let’s go Krogering, Krogering, Krogering…” Let’s just say that ad was soon retired. My wife and I are huge Costco fans and have spent our kids’ inheritance there many times over, but I can’t recall either one of us telling someone that we “Costco’d” today.
The fact that Zoom, Skype and FaceTime have become noun-verbs and Microsoft’s Teams, a similar and widely used product in the biz world has not, must be a source of frustration in Redmond. The problem might be that the word “teams” connotes many things whereas the names of the other three products do not.
Still, while I and many others will use Uber as a verb, I’ve never heard anyone use Lyft in that way. And FedEx has made its way into our lexicon as a verb much more so than UPS. Ditto for Venmo (verb, yes) vs. PayPal (verb, no).
So, Zoom is now also a verb and it turns out the late and great Aretha Franklin was particularly prescient. Her 1985 hit song asked “Who’s zoomin’ who?” How did she know?
About the author: Mike Hoban is a leadership coach and advisor who also writes about business topics, sometimes in a whimsical way. In addition to his 35+ years experience as a leader, consultant and business owner he has also published extensively in Fast Company and also wrote a business column for 12 years. Many of his recent commentaries — including several about leading during the COVID crisis — can be found on his LinkedIn page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mike-hoban-b5756b6/ He can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.