Brand Identity Trademarking 101 - Part 1: What Is a Trademark and Why Is It Important?

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Posted Dec 16, 2011
Susan Gunelius

Trademarks legally protect an important part of your brand equity -- the core elements of your brand identity. Imagine you invest a lot of money into creating your brand name, logo, and slogan. You advertise them, use them on packaging, and more. Suddenly, a competitor launches in your marketplace using the same (or a very similar) brand identity. Consumers are confused and your sales suffer. This scenario wouldn't have happened if you trademarked your brand identity elements.

brand identity trademarking

What Is a Trademark?

A trademark is a word, phrase, image, symbol, design, or a combination of these elements (such as a brand name, logo symbol, and tagline) that clearly distinguishes the products and services of one company from the products and services of other companies in the marketplace.

For example, McDonald's, Inc. owns the trademark for both the McDonald's name and the golden arches symbol. Often throughout history, McDonald's has trademarked specific ad campaign slogans, too. This is common practice for companies of all sizes.

Anyone can apply for a trademark through the U.S. Patent and Trademark office. Stay tuned to Part 4 of the Brand Identity Trademarking 101 series to learn more about how to obtain a trademark.

Why Is a Trademark Important?

A trademark can protect your brand from consumer confusion and sales losses. If you've ever seen the movie Coming to America with Eddie Murphy, then you're familiar with the restaurant he and Arsenio Hall worked at in Queens, New York. It was named McDowell's, which was particularly close to 'McDonald's' which was a significant source of concern for the owner played by John Amos.

Why was Mr. McDowell so worried about McDonald's? The answer is -- trademark law.

As mentioned above, McDonald's trademarked its various brand identity elements in order to protect them so no other competitor could copy them. Two similar brands would be confusing to consumers. They might want to purchase food from McDonald's but not realize they're actually at a McDowell's. That means McDonald's would lose sales and McDowell's has intentionally or unintentionally deceived consumers.

If Mr. McDowell had a hardware store, McDonald's might not sue. Trademarks are intended to protect businesses from competitors operating in the same marketplace. However, a globally recognized trademark with deep brand equity typically gets to protest the use of similar marks even in disparate industries. It's up to the courts to decide each case individually.

The point you need to understand is that trademarks are meant to protect intellectual property -- brand identity elements. Intellectual property takes a great deal of investments to build just as much as tangible property (if not more). You can't steal hamburgers, and you can't steal the golden arches.

What Trademarks Mean to Your Business

Let's revisit the scenario at the beginning of this article. If you invest time and money into developing your brand identity elements (and they aren't already owned by another entity operating in the same market (which will be discussed more in Part 2 of this series), then it would be disastrous to have another company suddenly start using the same brand identity elements.

If you had applied for and obtained a trademark for those elements, you could protest the competitor's use of them by first sending a cease and desist letter from your attorney. This letter would inform the competitor that you own the trademarked elements and by law, they must stop using those elements immediately. If they did not comply, you could sue them and recover up to triple damages if the competitor is found guilty of infringing on your trademark (plus attorney's fees).

In a nutshell, trademarks protect you from losing money and business. They don't cost a lot to get but can save your business in the long-run.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of the Brand Identity Trademarking 101 series where you'll learn about what can and cannot be trademarked.

Image: Flickr

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