Language is important not just to convey commonly understood facts and ideas, but it also frames up how we see the world and what is important to us. (That Eskimos have 50 words for snow is somewhat over quoted, but serves to demonstrate the point). So when we turn a word into a verb – a ‘doing word’ as you were taught in school – we are describing what it does and therefore its role in our lives.

Brands have typically been nouns, not verbs. Traditionally companies put their brands on a pedestal and broadcast a message of product differentiation and attractive imagery. It’s not surprising that brands were objectified; the hope was that we would worship them. The exception was genuinely new products – products that did something new. So people used to ‘Hoover’ their carpets until lots of other brands appeared and vacuuming became the verb of choice.

Xerox was another innovation that became verbified – we Xerox-ed we didn’t photocopy, not until there were many other brands to choose from. You’d expect that Xerox would have been delighted by this appropriation of their name, but on the contrary they tried to stop it, fearing that it would generic-ify (not a word, but why should Shakespeare get a monopoly on making up words?) their brand. Knowing what we know today about the importance of brand salience, of the power of mental availability and the effect of being the brand leader, you would wonder if they would feel the same way today.

Back to the 21st Century and along comes a verbified brand, Google. So now we Google, we don’t say “I’ll use a search engine”. And, to Google has come to mean so much more than using a search engine. It means to seek out, to validate, to inform, to entertain with knowledge, to save time, to prove myself right (or you wrong). It’s become an extension of our memory. It does things and has a role in people’s lives, deserving its verb status. What’s more, it generally does actually mean to Google – not to Bing or to Yahoo.

When a brand becomes a verb it translates directly to what the brand does, and brands as verbs speak to a paradigm shift in the last decade about how people feel about brands. The shift is to what brands do – both how they behave and what they do that is useful in people’s lives.

How brands behave has a direct relationship to brand purpose – what it stands for (beyond growth and profit) and its overarching beliefs about its role in the world – and there is an expectation that it will behave in a certain way. This fits the zeitgeist of the current generation’s view that brands are what they do. An example from work we have done with millennials for whom Apple is one of their favourite brands – but, unlike the previous generation, not because of its design, its badge status, its general cool – but because it helps synchronise their lives.

So for purpose to have authenticity it needs to translate into how the brand behaves – not what it says, but what it does. For example, Unilever made changes in their supply chain for palm oil, so that their stated purpose around sustainability had integrity, despite the fact that most of their customers have scant knowledge about the palm oil issue or its previous use in Unilever brands.

Conversely, we see brands where the stated purpose is about being useful or helping people achieve results and indeed their product does make life easier, yet their customer service is far from easy. Customers don’t differentiate between how the product does and how the company behaves – in this case how it deals with customers – both have to align with the brand’s stated purpose.

There is a good deal of debate about whether brand purpose delivers a better bottom line with heavyweights on both sides of the argument.

The best known treatise on this topic is Jim Stengel’s work looking at 50 companies who show above average growth (if you had invested in them your return would have been 400% better than the S&P) all of which are shown to be ‘ideals based’ – that is, they have a higher order purpose.

On the other side is the clinically forensic eye of Byron Sharp of the Ehrenberg Bass Institute who believes that researchers have been seduced by the ‘halo affect’ in their selection of companies, arguing that there are many other companies who have adopted a brand purpose that have not fared well. He also quotes the demise of Blackberry and HP, both of which appear in Stengel’s top 50.

What isn’t in any doubt is that adopting a brand purpose sets an expectation that the brand will behave accordingly so what the brand does is how it will be defined, whether or not it becomes verbified.

So whereas the jury is out as regards Sharp’s view on the value of brand purpose, what the Ehrenberg Institute has also demonstrated is that being a brand leader has significant advantages for growth and being top of mind is the most important quality a brand can own. So a brand becoming a verb that is widely used would seem to be highly advantageous.

Even more recently, a new breed of brands has jumped straight to being verbs. We Uber, we Skype, we AirBnB. Some of these brands are relatively new and innovative product experiences, but consider how close Xero has come to being a verb, yet accounting systems are hardly new. And it wasn’t as though there is a paucity of existing language: we Uber when ‘to taxi’ was a perfectly acceptable and widely used verb that could have persisted after the launch of Uber. And in the media space we Netflix but we don’t TV3.

“I Uber” is a direct connection between what the brand does and its role in your life, forging a closer and more emotionally based connection than “I taxi using Uber”. When brands are verbs we have an inherently closer emotional connection with them and crucially, emotions drive our decision-making.

So why do some brands naturally become verbs and is it a desirable grammatical status for all brands? Imagine if instead of banking you ASB’d, or you Sealorded for dinner tonight and for next year’s overseas experience you plan “to Air New Zealand”. It’s possibly too late for established brands like ASB to be verbified, though perhaps they could inculcate into young New Zealanders that they should ‘Clever Kash’.

Whether or not brands can dictate their grammatical status, they can control how they behave and what they do, achieving verb status (metaphorically if not literally) only if they do something helpful and what they promise across every aspect of people’s experience of the brand.

Written by Colleen Ryan, Partner, TRA