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Staying on the Right Side of the Line: Suggestive vs. Descriptive

Posted in Advertising, Almost Advice, Branding, Food, Marketing, Sight, Trademarks

My last post explored the fine — but critically important — line, between suggestive and descriptive naming styles, here. As you will recall, marketers and naming gurus who select from the former category are rewarded with immediate rights; selecting from the latter category leaves one in limbo until acquired distinctiveness can be proven, if ever. Landing on the right side of the line (literally and figuratively) on the Spectrum of Distinctiveness, however, is only the first step of the challenge.

Equally important to landing on the right side of the naming line at the outset, is the constant challenge to keep a suggestive name and mark on the right or inherently distinctive and immediately protectable side of the line. Seems as though there is a strong temptation, if not tendency, to push a perfectly suggestive name or mark back over to the wrong or merely descriptive side of the line through an owner’s own misuse on labels, packaging, ad copy, and/or the internet.

Let’s just say that I have consumed more than my fair share of Gatorade brand thirst quencher while soaking it up in my hot tub. And let’s also just say that during those many extended brand experiences, I have become quite familiar with a particular Gatorade label, one that makes the point of this post quite well.

Anyway, the Gatorade label I’m speaking of, here, prominently displays a federally-registered tag-line with a nice alliterative quality: Rehydrate Replenish Refuel. As you can see from the federal trademark registration, here, the U.S. Trademark Office considered the tag-line sufficiently creative to be inherently distinctive, i.e., suggestive, not merely descriptive.

No doubt this wouldn’t have been the case had the Trademark Office seen the pair of descriptive tag-line misuses appearing on my Gatorade label (close-ups here and here). Instead, it would have found the tag-line to be merely descriptive, not suggestive, and refused registration. Why? Bluntly and overtly describing Gatorade thirst quencher as “scientifically formulated with fluid, electrolytes and carbs to rehydrate, replenish and refuel in ways water can’t” and also as “a smart choice for athletes because it rehydrates, replenishes and refuels in ways water can’t,” removes every drop of imagination, thought and perception needed to make Rehydrate Replenish Refuel a suggestive tag-line. Instead it ends up immediately describing a feature of the product and only fuels a finding of mere descriptiveness.

So, taking a suggestive name, mark, or tag-line, and using it descriptively in a sentence on labels, packaging, ad copy, or the internet, unfortunately can move it to the left (and wrong) side of the line and render it merely descriptive. Perhaps you’re wondering why the Trademark Office didn’t pick up on this important point and refuse registration on descriptiveness grounds? Well, let’s just say that the Gatorade label submitted to the Trademark Office didn’t have the descriptive uses you have seen here. Let’s also just say that we’ll save for another day and another post what the Trademark Office was provided.