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Brand Protection

Branding And Trademark Law

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Branding And Trademark Law

While the best defense against copycat competitors is to stay ahead of them with a continuous stream of innovative, highly differentiated, and superior products and services, it is equally important to seek as much legal protection as possible for your brand.

Trademark Law
As a brand steward, you must be aware of the laws under which legal protection is available.  First, trademark law protects a brand’s identity.  That is, it protects names, titles, taglines, slogans, logos, other designs, product shapes, sounds, smells, colors or any other features that distinguish one source of products or services from another. Trademarks that protect services are often called service marks (“SM”).  There are also “collective membership marks” (Boy Scouts of America) and “certification marks” (UL approved).

Trademarks, like brands, build in strength over time.  The test for trademark infringement is “confusing similarity.”  Put another way, if the average consumer believes both products to have come from the same source, there is infringement. Obviously, the more a consumer is familiar with a particular brand, the more defendable its mark.  That’s why it behooves a company to do the following:

•choose a distinctive mark, including a “coined” name. (brand names range from generic and descriptive to suggestive and arbitrary or fanciful (“coined”).  Obviously it takes longer to build meaning for “coined” names, but they are also more distinctive and easiest to protect legally.  Kodak, Xerox, and Exxon fall in that category.  Suggestive marks are the next most protectable.  Examples include Coppertone, Duracell, and Lestoil.  Even common words can be used as trademarks as long as they are not used descriptively.  These common words/phrases are also suggestive marks: Amazon (big), Road Runner (fast) and Apple (different, offbeat).  Descriptive marks are not protectable unless the brand creates a secondary meaning for the word.  Examples include Weight Watchers, Rollerblade, and Wite-out.  Generic marks, such as Shredded Wheat and Super Glue, are not protectable at all.)

•    avoid geographic names as a part of your mark – they can be the basis of trademark refusal
•    register the mark
•    be consistent in its use of the mark
•    create strong trade dress (mentioned below)
•    widely advertise and distribute its trademarked products
•    do all of this over a long period of time.

Because the strength of a mark is dependant upon consumers’ familiarity with it, it is much easier for a competitor to neutralize your mark soon after it has been introduced than after it has been in use for a long period of time.

Courts use the following tests to determine infringement:
•    strength of the trademark claiming infringement
•    similarity of the two marks
•    evidence of consumer confusion
•    care a consumer takes in comparing products
•    intent of the organization in using the potentially infringing mark. (Some drug and grocery stores have used generic brands that emulate a leading brand’s package shape, colors, typestyle, formulation, etc. side-by-side with the leading brand to imply that there are no differences between the two, encouraging consumers to purchase the lower priced generic item.  In this situation, there is clearly intent to emulate the leading brand and reduce the perceived differentiation and value advantage of that brand, but it is not clear that there is intent to deliberately cause confusion as to source.)
•    relatedness of the two businesses
•    overlap between communication and distribution channels

By using the mark in association with your products and services over time, you gain trademark protection.  Registering your mark (marks can be registered at the state and federal levels) provides additional protection. While common law and federal trademark statute protect an unregistered mark, registering your mark transfers the burden of proof to the second comer in challenging a mark’s registration.  With federal registration, you can sue infringers in Federal court.  Also, after five years of registration, the mark becomes incontestable.  Federal trademark registrations last ten years and can be renewed every ten years ad infinitum.

You can acquire trademark rights in one of two ways.  To acquire trademark rights based on use in commerce, you must be the first person or organization that uses the mark in conjunction with the products or services for which trademark protection is sought.  To acquire the mark base upon intent to use, you must apply to register the mark through the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
Before choosing a trademark, first conduct a simple search to weed out marks that are not available.  This search can be done online for free.  (See online resources at the end of this chapter.)  After that, for the remaining candidates, conduct a full search through a law firm specializing in trademark law or an experienced trademark search firm.

Strong brands run the danger of becoming category descriptors.  Always use trademarks as adjectives, not verb or nouns.  If your brand is in danger of becoming a category descriptor, consider talking about your brand in the following way: “Jell-O® gelatin,” “Kleenex® facial tissue” and “Xerox® photocopier” to differentiate the brand from the category.

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Branding Strategy Insider is a service of The Blake Project: A strategic brand consultancy specializing in Brand Research, Brand Strategy, Brand Licensing and Brand Education

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  1. IP News - April 25, 2008

    Considerations in Branding and Trademark Development

    To date, this blog has focused primarily on issues relating to patent development and licensing. Of course, the world of intellectual property consists of more than patents – for an enterprise, attention must be paid to all sorts of intellectual

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