By Vincent Teh
If what they say about people living up to their names is true, then I’m set for a life of spectacular mediocrity and absolute boredom. As far as names go, Vincent is definitely up there in terms of commonness and way down there in terms of averageness. When I was in university, I lived in a student hall with 5 other Vincents, all bespectacled, all Chinese, all male. So I am really just your ordinary average Vincent, a dime a dozen and hardly inspiring.
A trademark, if you like, is really a name. And as our names have the potential to dictate much of our lives, so will a trademark dictate the life of your business. Consequently, how do you choose a great trademark to give your business the best possible start in life? Should you go for something generic and descriptive that screams out what you do? Or do you go for something unique and distinctive that will set you apart from the rest? What about an exotic foreign name that is unpronounceable by anyone but you? Generally speaking, from a marketing point of view, a mark that gets you noticed and trusted by the consumers is a good trademark. From a legal point of view, a good trademark is a mark that can be easily protected and enforced. By and large, these two tenets go hand in hand.
Let’s take a look at how well the trademarks in each of the aforementioned categories (i.e., unique and distinctive; generic and descriptive; exotic and foreign) fare in relation to their marketing and legal value:
Generic and Descriptive
Many traders choose a trademark that is generic or descriptive because in the short term it’s cost saving. You don’t need to spend money on advertising and promotion to tell people who you are or what your product does – the trademark says it all.
However, from a marketing point of view, a generic or descriptive trademark puts you in the same situation as my Vincents scenario above. Imagine if you knew all five of us Vincents, and it’s my birthday this weekend. You are throwing me a surprise party. So you go around asking people in my hall if they would like to come to “Vincent’s birthday party”. They will ask you, “Which Vincent?”. You can’t say “male, Chinese, bespectacled”; that’s all five of us! It’s the same with a generic/descriptive trademark, it’s indistinguishable, unlikely to be noticed. And instead of being one in a million, you are one of the millions. So, low marks in marketing value.
Similarly, from a legal point of view, generic/descriptive trademarks score the lowest in terms of protection and enforcement. They are devilishly difficult to register and equally difficult to enforce. The trademark laws of almost every country will not allow the registration of a mark that is descriptive of its products or services because registration gives the owner of the registered mark an exclusive right to use the mark. Therefore, if I register the word “coffee” for coffee products I can prevent everyone else from using the word on their java. Clearly this creates a bit of a problem: how is anyone else going to sell coffee if they can’t call it “coffee”? As a general rule, the higher the number of traders who are using the word in their business, the harder it is to register the word as a trademark.
It’s the same with enforcement. It is morally reprehensible for me to prevent everyone else from using the word “coffee” to sell coffee. Therefore, the courts will also turn a deaf ear if I were to take an action against another trader for using the word. That leaves you with an indefensible trademark that is as helpful as a pink rubber gun in a firefight. It also means that consumers cannot put their trust in your brand and your business. The consumers can’t be sure that each time they buy a product bearing your trademark, it is actually a product that is produced by you. There’s no quality assurance. So again, low marks in marketing.
Unique and Distinctive
My girlfriend’s name is the direct opposite of mine. It’s one of those names you will never find on those tacky fridge magnets or those horrid gaudy flashing key-rings. In fact, sometimes I wonder if her name actually means “awesome” in Kryptonian (major brownie points!). Most times when we introduce ourselves to strangers, they will immediately get my name, but my girlfriend will have to repeat her name at least 10 times, before having to spell it out for them.
Sure, my name is instantly decipherable, but when we see the same people a few weeks later, they will remember my girlfriend’s name and I will be greeted with “Hey, Victor”. While a generic/descriptive trademark is easily mistaken (trust me, my girlfriend’s dad calls me “Steven” sometimes), it is unlikely that a consumer will do the same to a unique/distinctive trademark. Yes, initially you will have to put in more effort to introduce yourself, but in the long run, once the consumers catch on, you are unlikely to be mistaken for someone else, or worse, forgotten.
A unique name is also a good conversation starter. People are curious to find out the meaning behind the name or what possessed the parents of Batman bin Suparman of Singapore. With a creative trademark, you’ll be able to pique the consumers’ interest before you even sell them anything. Because a unique/distinctive trademark gets you noticed and helps you connect with the consumers, it scores top marks in marketing value.
Legally, a unique/distinctive trademark is relatively easy to register, as it is unlikely that the registration of your mark will prevent other traders from legitimately using something that they have a right to (assuming the mark has not already been taken). Back to the coffee example, while my registration of the word “coffee” for coffee is deplorable, the same cannot be said if I register the word “coffee” for shoes. “Coffee” is not a word that is commonly used by shoe makers to describe their products. For the same reason, it is also relatively easy for the owner of a unique mark to enforce his exclusive rights. And because I can prevent other shoe makers from using the word “coffee” on their shoes, the consumers can be sure that when they buy a pair of “Coffee” shoes, the shoes are made by me. There is quality assurance. For this, a unique/distinctive mark is awarded top marks in legal value and again in marketing value as well.
Exotic and Foreign
While out walking with my grandma one day, I was shocked to hear a string of profanity emanating from the direction of the normally decorous nonagenarian. As I turned to chastise her for her sudden burst of impropriety, she pointed to the reason of her lapse in decorum. She was merely reading the sign of “Dôme” café, but because English is as foreign as French to her, she had pronounced “Dome” as a two-syllable word.
The moral of the story is, when choosing an exotic and foreign sounding trademark, be sensible and be sensitive. Don’t name your mineral water “Eyjafjallajökull” unless you only plan to sell your products to Scandinavians. Also, you have to remember, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. What sounds great in your language may very well get a person stoned in another culture. For example, I don’t think I’d be inclined to try “Pee Cola” from Ghana. I doubt I will have much use for “Barf” detergent from Iran now that my bulimia days are behind me. As for “Aass” beer from Norway…
Note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and need not reflect the views of KASS nor of its clients.