Trademarks, which are names or symbols associated with a specific company or product, are tremendously valuable to companies building a brand. This is especially important for startup brands that may underestimate the importance of developing a trademark early in the game.
Developing a trade name for a product or service is a difficult process in and of itself. Outside of the creative aspects of naming, being able to “own” the name as a registered trademark is more difficult than ever. The sheer volume of trademark registrations each year in every product category is staggering – and that’s why the process of naming is so critical to start-up brands.
Developing a brand name is by itself a highly specialized marketing discipline. The process for creating a brand name strong enough to propel its unique value into the minds of customers and pass legal muster requires the skill and talent of experts. It’s not a casual exercise. Even when the process has been carefully executed, owners of start-up brands can run into unforeseen legal trouble from larger competitors who may use trademark law as a means of eliminating competitive threats to their business.
Such was the case for a start-up snack food brand whose owners thought was a routine move to register the trademark of their hot new product — a flat pretzel snack called “Pretzel Crisps” — and it was contested by none other than Frito-Lay, the 800-pound gorilla of the snack food market owned by PepsiCo.
According to its filings with the Patent and Trademark Office, Frito-Lay contends that Pretzel Crisps cannot be registered as a trademark because it is a generic term. “Like ‘milk chocolate bar,’ the combination of ‘pretzel’ and ‘crisp’ gains no meaning as a phrase over and above the generic meaning of its constituent terms,” the company wrote in a 2010 motion. You can read the full story here.
With so much at stake in a crowded marketplace, companies are much more likely to fight over trademark rights to names. For example, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon are embroiled in a dispute over the term “app store,” for software applications, which Apple moved to trademark in 2008.
The question seems to hinge on what types of names are more “ownable” than others. In the case of the snack food “Pretzel Chips”, this is a descriptive name. A name like “Fandango” is more evocative. Descriptive names have obvious benefits because consumers more easily connect the meaning of the trade name to the product’s physical attribute. Consequently descriptive names can be favored over evocative names whose meaning must be developed in marketing communications over time.
The legal question remains – can descriptive names be distinctively unique and ownable under current trademark law? It’s this question that sometimes gets overlooked by new brand owners in the process of naming their new product. This is a grey area and left to fuzzy legal interpretation. Of course, it’s far better to hedge this risk very early in the naming process by completing a comprehensive legal scan of early naming candidates by a trademark / intellectual property attorney.
Ten common naming structures to guide your thinking
Naming is the most important element of a brand proposition. It’s the first perception by an audience about who you are and what you represent. Names should never be developed as an afterthought. A good name requires and deserves full creative and legal consideration. If you are thinking about naming right now, you may find the following structures useful to your process.
These are names that are re-purposed words. (e.g., Adobe, Amazon, Fox, Yelp, Saphire) This category also includes misspelled words (e.g., Digg (dig), flickr (flicker)) and foreign words (e.g., Vox (Latin for “voice “).
These names consist of two words put together (e.g., Firefox, Facebook, LightScribe).
These names follow normal rules for combining words (but are not compounds) (e.g., MySpace, StumbleUpon).
Blended names have two parts, at least one of which can be recognized as a part of a real word (e.g., Netscape (net + landscape); Wikipedia (wiki + encyclopedia).
Tweaked word names are derived from words that have been slightly changed in pronunciation and spelling, commonly derived from adding or replacing a letter (e.g., ebay, iTunes).
These are unique names that result from taking a real word and adding a suffix or prefix (e.g., Friendster, Omnidrive).
Made Up, Evocative or Obscure Origin Words:
These names are generally short names that are either completely made up, or, since their origins are so obscure, they may as well have been made up (e.g., Bebo, Plaxo).
Puns are names that modify words/phrases to suggest a different meaning (e.g., Farecast (forecast, fore -> fare), Writely (rightly, right -> write).
Using a general name or the name from a personal connection (e.g., Ning (a Chinese name), Wendy’s (founder Dave Thomas’ daughter’s nickname).
The least favored in our view. Names derived from the first letter of each word in the longer, more official name (e.g., AOL (America Online), FIM (Fox Interactive Media).
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