Tarmac? What kind of a brand is that, its just the pavement, right? Wrong my friends. Tarmac is a brand and an awe-inspiring dominant one at that. I love brands whose names are synonymous with their main product, it shows an awesome degree of brand dominance when the brand name becomes subsumed into language. But it is also dangerous: when Hoover became the de facto name for vacuum cleaners, they did not maintain brand dominance, and then the name stopped referring to the company at all (with the knock on effect that – say a Hoover Washing Machine also looked pretty suspect*).
So Tarmac is a company name? Yep, but it is also short for the process of Tar Macadamizing, which was a development of Macadamized roads. The process, of a three layer road surface, with drainage and run-off built in was revolutionary, but very labour intensive. Pitch Macadam came next which used sand and tar for the top layer, to stabilise the load. Purnell Hooley developed this further by pre-mixing the tar and aggregate, pouring it on and then bringing in the steam roller to compact it. Actually it is the roller part which marked Hooley’s technique out, the pressure helped the tar set quicker, and had the happy side-product of making the road surface very level. For some reason it was Scottish inventors doing all this transport stuff, but if you consider the difference Dunlop’s pneumatic tyre made to wheeled vehicles, also consider the difference a flat and clean road surface made.
So Hooley set up his company, and called it the Tar Macadam company. Not very punchy eh? Like many scientists and engineers he was also a rubbish businessman, so the company floundered – until it was bought out. Now I am not saying that the company failed because it was called Tar Macadam. But as soon as the name was changed to Tarmac, it boomed. Who makes all of our roads? Tarmac. What do we also call bitumen road coverings, asphalt concrete and pretty much everything on the road? Tarmac. What do they lay? Tarmac?
NO! There actually is very little Tarmac on the roads now. It is mainly asphalt as mentioned above. But much of it is still laid by Tarmac, and most of the urban roads in Britain had a Tarmac layer once. And the name has done its job. We know the company because we know the roads. When plains land on the Tarmac at airports, they are actually landing on concrete. Yet Tarmac has this brand identity, this brand awareness which means that they often get the job. They are the leading suppliers of heavy building materials in the UK, quarrying sand, aggregate and providing thousands of tons of concrete all over the shop. But their brand is great because not only is it seen to be ubiquitous (when it isn’t), but it is short for a scientific process which revolutionised transport all over the world. The brand has wormed its way into the language AND they have a surprisingly good website. And hey, its the floor, and its all over the place!