My business partner just finished building his deck. In addition to the bureaucratic ordeal, that is obtaining permitting, he decided to go the extra frustrating mile and install composite deck boards versus treated wood. Fair enough. There was just one little wrinkle: Normal deck screws will "mushroom" on you unless they are pre-drilled, or worse, split the board entirely. If you’re not careful, you can go through a few boards before you figure it out. And the boards are (not surprisingly) much more expensive.
To solve the problem, builders are instructed to use special screws.SplitStop™ screws seem to be the preferred choice – they have the patents (5,516,248, 5199,839, if you’re curious) – although others "claim" to work just as well. A simple Google search returns no less than 10 competing brands, all making a seemingly fair case that their screw is the right screw for the job. But none of them have the SplitStop patent, and numerous articles by independent reviewers bemoan the confusion in the marketplace.
In addition to the "patent" confusion, throw in a dose of "trademark" confusion, and you have a veritable IP mess. Titan Metal Werks (who owns the SplitStop name and patents) also markets the DeckEase™ product. Compare that to TrapEase™ (marketed by competitor FastenMaster).
And therein lies the question: What is Titan to do? Are the others infringing? Perhaps. Are they causing confusion in the market? Certainly. Is the confusion hurting the reputation of the Titan brands? Probably. Will Titan be able to get them to stop? Doubtful.
At first, its tempting to think Titan has a legal problem (and they very well might), and to come up with legal remedies (which they could), but that’s really not the central issue. The issue with the Titan brand portfolio is really a failure of marketing strategy. Specifically, a three-part failure:
1. Underfunded brand development effort: A properly promoted brand would be able to garner market share fast enough to create a stranglehold in the marketplace, locking competitors into a minority share and decidedly sub-dominant position. Instead, Titan’s effort resembles many other industrial products: Tech-heavy, blah, and amateurish. If you want to play in the consumer big leagues, you need to bring the big bats.
2. Failing to employ the "Kleenex®" brand strategy: With a patented product on an early/first-to-market product, Titan could have (and should have) adopted the king-of-the-hill brand position, naming its product directly after its function – composite deck fastening. Instead, the company employed a strategy focusing on the key benefit (stopping "splits"). That’s nice, but consumers were just getting used to composite decking in the first place; they understood the overall benefits of the end product, but were not nearly sophisticated enough to understand the specific cost/benefit on the screws themselves. Frankly, who cares? It’s a screw.
Customer: "Which screw do I need?"
Hardware Store Clerk: "You need "CompScrew" screws for composite decking (throwing out a concept idea here).
Customer: "CompScrew for composite decking. That makes sense. Okay, I’ll buy those."
Done. Instead, Titan is asking consumers to understand the finer points of installation procedures in order to understand (and find value in) the brand benefit. Good luck with that.
3. Weak channel marketing: The fact you can easily buy another brand of screw at all is a failure of channel marketing. Smart channel marketers would have approached the makers of the composite decking materials themselves, proved the fastening product’s efficacy, and worked with them to actually write in the proper installation practices into the warranty itself. In other words, if you don’t fasten the boards properly (with this specific brand of screw), we won’t guarantee the product. Of course, you can’t out and out "say" it has to be a specific brand, but you can make a case in your warranty for a specific claim in the patent. Would it hold up in a small claims court? Perhaps not, but it would be enough to scare off most buyers from going a different direction (especially if you offered a good incentive or rebate).
It really comes down to this: A solid IP portfolio is an important first step to building a brand. But it is only the beginning. If you fail to market it properly, your IP can’t save you.