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Alpha Watch: Li’l “a” Goes to the “e” Market

Posted in Advertising, AlphaWatch, Branding, Marketing, Trademarks, Truncation

E-mail a gift card

The single-letter branding and trademark truncation trend continues.

Can you name the retailer selling online gift cards sent by e-mail, using no other identification besides the li’l "a" shown here?

Does this li’l "a" logo with a radish inside help?

How about these, do they help? Valentine's Day Winter Hat

Well, just so you know, it’s not this retailer: 

Assuming you can’t wait any longer, here is the answer.

If you were able to wait, and want some more clues, the retailer in question owns a registration for aStore, it acquired this li’l "a" from Alexa Internet:and is now seeking federal registration of this version of li’l "a" too:

See here, here, here, and here.

As you may recall from my last post, the design appearing beneath the lowercase "a" has been identified as a "miscellaneous" design. Now, it is being identified as a "smile or curved arrow."

As for others who also have shown interest in protecting their own li’l "a" marks in connection with "retail" services, see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

As for capital "A" logos in connection with "retail" services, see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, hereherehere, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

So, given all this, what is the meaningful scope of protection for a service mark comprising li’l "a"?

  • http://www.linkedin.com/pub/ed-burghard/0/966/949 Ed Burghard

    Good for 26 brands. Well, 24 since W and A are taken.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/loisatthewordgym Lois Thomas

    Truncating a brand down to a single letter with some design input may work for some products particularly those associated with “e” products and services.
    However I do think there is a danger of brand dilution and if the product / service is to make an international impact then the Brand Guardians need to do their research very carefully to make sure it “translates” cross border.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/buzzjensen Buzz Jensen

    Truncation only leads to alphabet soup. Single letter brand won’t mean anything to long term customer loyalty and will cost much more to bring to life/relevancy to a large enough audience to mean anything.
    Short and sweet this time!

  • http://www.linkedin.com/pub/peter-shaw/3/723/1a0 Peter Shaw

    S***

  • http://www.BrandAscension.com Suzanne Tulien

    Interesting trend and article. If we remember that any letter is merely a symbolic icon and can be rendered in a multitude of different artistic ways, it ends up being just another logo design. However, we must remember that the logo is not the brand in and of itself, but rather the symbol representing the “brand” — or rather the PERCEPTION we, as consumers, have of the brand. So the important concept here is that the symbol that is representing a particular perception stay congruent with the meaning of the brand itself. The customers will be the ultimate decision-makers as to what works for the brand, as their experience will dictate the power of the brand and the symbol in their own minds.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/pub/ed-burghard/0/966/949 Ed Burghard

    Good for 26 brands. Well, 24 since W and A are taken.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/pub/preethi-mendon/9/ab2/724 Preethi Mendon

    And alphabets have less tendency to create a brand personality unless creatively expressed as they dont imply anything by itself.
    It will create curiosity to the end user as to what it would signify, it more seems like a ” suspicious killer leaving his trade mark after the crime” leaving it for further investigation!!
    But how does the verbal brand usage be defined? lil a, big a, tilted a…i think the concept in itself is confusing n might succeed with niche Co.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/dmitchel David Mitchel

    Usually, I’m opposed to truncating a brand down to a single letter. It is hard to convey brand essence in a single letter.
    Gatorade tried to revitalize the brand by re-branding itself as “G”. The “G” re-branding effort hasn’t produced the results that PepsiCo wanted.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/melindamerrillcurrier Mindy Currier

    Hi Stephen,
    Interesting discussion. In theory, I guess that means the whole discussion could top out at twenty-six single letter identities — but it’s never that simple, is it?
    Cheers,
    Mindy

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/jackcuffari Jack Cuffari

    Since protectability is a primary criterion in brandmark development, the use of a single letter is obviously fraught with potential nightmares, particularly in a litigation-happy society like ours. Everyone would love to have their brand be so ubiquitous and well-recognized that a single letter would call it to mind, but in my opinion that kind of familiarity has to evolve organically, and below the radar (and beyond the scope) of intentional marketing strategy.
    Plus, these efforts at locking down a letter of the alphabet for a brandmark smack of profound laziness. Yo, why not just say “Got L?” if you’re not even going to bother showing up at the brainstorming session?

  • http://www.ilanandfriends.com Ilan Geva

    B.
    (boring)

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/seancgrace Sean C. Grace

    I agree with Jack’s opinion here – A lot of nightmares and usually no payoff. Unless a brand is already strong enough to be recognized in this way, registering a single letter as a trademark isn’t going to help. Also, it appears to me that many of the brands that use a single letter utilize some kind of a unique design to go along with it – these two things together is what brings recognition in a lot of cases.
    On another note, the Amazon “A” in the link you provided confused me a bit. The arrow was under the “A” alone without the rest of the word “Amazon”. Did they try to register this as their trademark? Because that’s really not their logo at all. The arrow goes from the “A” to the “Z” in the word “Amazon” on their website. My impression of this was always that they have everything that a consumer needs “from A to Z”. Taking out the rest of the word causes this branding strategy to no longer make sense.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/pub/jessica-levy/0/a71/bb9 Jessica Levy

    This trend is really exasperating from the trademark prosecution standpoint. The register is clogged with one-letter design marks, and it’s inevitable that a new application will meet with multiple grounds for refusal, essentially proving that the mark has no chance of being distinctive. The problem for counsel then is how to explain this situation to a client whose marketing department’s brief is “We want to OWN the A.” With only 26 letters, you can have some real frustration and pointless battles out there – only to see the trend vanish in less time than the application would take to get through. I give the trend an F (sorry, couldn’t help myself!)

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/lysfjord John Lysfjord

    I would say there is a trend for companies to replace their wordy names with simple and recognizable symbols. For brevity (e.g. Sony Ericsson), visual impact, and in some cases the simple reason that their company name cannot be registered as a trademark, while a symbol usually has less infringement risk.
    It’s natural for companies going down this path that they try to find something in their existing visual identity that can become this symbol. And for many companies, this means picking the first letter of their company name.
    From a visual identity standpoint. I’d say you could turn a single letter into a symbol that identifies your business in the same way as the swoosh identifies Nike. When this company adds the smile below the ‘a’ it gives it a quite distinctive and recognizable design. But for many of the designs shown in your article, it seems like they were relying on people recognizing the ‘a’ without the smiling curve, which I think would be challenging with the generic font they’ve used for their ‘a’.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/adamjrtaylor Adam Rees-Taylor

    I question how it would work in arabic, russian cyrillic etc.
    I think Peter summed it up.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/loisatthewordgym Lois Thomas

    These markets are very used to seeing Roman characters/words intermingled in Cyrillic copy, as they are very familiar with western style advertising.
    I’d suggest it is far more alien for us to see non-Roman characters intermingled in Roman based text. :-)

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/adamjrtaylor Adam Rees-Taylor

    Perhaps the artist formally known as and known again as Prince would have a view!

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/lysfjord John Lysfjord

    The French artist ‘M’ is a pretty good example for this discussion.
    http://www.amazon.com/M/e/B000AQ05GS/ref=ntt_mus_dp_pel
    One problem all of these 1-letter truncated brands get though is that they are next to impossible to find by search-engines. Try yourself to find this french musician called simply ‘M’ in Google, and you’ll know what I mean.
    I believe it’s possible to create a distinctive symbol based on a single letter that can become the most commonly recognized part of your brand identity. But you’ll still need a name that can more clearly identify you, and you probably want people to use this full name when they are talking about and referring others to your business.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/joeluthy Joe Luthy

    Yogi Berra might say “It could work if you worked at it.” A single letter seems more like a logo (branding element) than a brand, with some high hurdles to overcome. Unlike greek letters, Latin based characters don’t lend themselves to being descriptive in themselves. Without a unique graphical element there would be a steady stream of imitators and getting a protected mark appears to have infinitely small odds. For most I’d recommend taking the resources and improving my current brand reputation. That would be a better investment.

  • http://www.duetsblog.com/steve-baird.html Steve Baird

    If only people were willing to share their insights and opinions on this subject!
    Wow, great comments and discussion!

  • madhur

    I think this kind of activity works well with the outdoor adverts only or may be targeted Internet advertising. Scope will be immensely local and the brand can say bye bye to any transformation to a global iddentity.
    If the idea is to stay local, good idea focus on outdoors and it has got potential too. Throw in TVC stagnation sets in and with radio it will be an overkill.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/pavanparimi Pavan Kumar

    Seems like a good idea…but not very practical though…. it will hurt the brand for sure…

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/randallhull Randall Hull

    Steve,
    This appears to be a branding fad. There have been many I’ve observed in 30+ years. Not all have positive long-term effects. The single letter craze may pass just like Sasha Fierce.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/markgallagher Mark Gallagher

    If a single letter can be owned both legally and within the consumer’s minds, then it may have the advantage of brevity. A short word is succinct and by extension a single letter should be the ultimate in simplicity. Or is it?
    Many are visually fooled into believing that the simplicity of a single letter is a constant. It is not.
    ‚Ä¢ “W” is pronounced as a three syllable “word”
    ‚Ä¢ “Z” is pronounced “Zee” in America and “Zed” in England
    If single letter truncation is trending, it will soon become a point of parity rather than a point of differentiation. Add to this the limitation of only twenty-six letters in the English alphabet and companies may soon find themselves running into conflicts both in the market and in the courtroom.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/pub/james-mahoney/13/150/134 James Mahoney

    Well. wisdom or lack thereof aside (and for that matter, trademark protection, too) when it comes to truncating down to a single letter, the samples you offer appear to me to be more secondary marks that the companies may want to use in packaging, advertising, etc. And it appears to me that the specific typographic treatment of them is as much a part of the identity as the letter itself. The only exceptions that immediately come to mind are the hotel ones, so they’re a different story.
    Companies have used secondary identifiers for years with no apparent problem. For example, would you confuse the lightning bolt Gatorade G with any other G that’s out there? I don’t think so. And it’s still Gatorade to almost all of us. I s’pose that the creators of the new G were imagining that soon, thirsty drinkers would be calling out, “Yo, my man! Pass me a G.” Yeah, right. But as a graphic device, and secondary identifier, it has visual merit.
    Also, I haven’t seen or heard of any hue and cry about any of these single-letter, secondary marks being seriously challenged. (And I just know that by making that statement, I’m baiting the estimable Mr. Baird to barrage us with “here, here, here, here, and here!”) You’ll note that in almost all of the applications–the gum, for examples–the full name of the product appears on the packaging along with the single letter. That says to me that this is a promotional technique more than a transition to the single-letter as the trademarked name; more of a fashionable trade dress than a serious re-marking.
    And in the traditional promotional mindset, the marketers are less worried about arming their lawyers with air-tight trademark arguments for these single-letter secondary identifiers than they are excited about the jazz of the look and the campaign. It’s a trend that will pass, like they always do, and the fact that you can easily present so many examples is a pretty good indication that the trend is rapidly maturing, if it hasn’t already.
    ‘Course, I’m the guy who said in the late 90s that any car company that hadn’t already cashed in on the SUV trend would be stupid to add an SUV to their line (Porsche, anyone?) since that was a fad that was clearly fading.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/jackcuffari Jack Cuffari

    James: re: the SUV thing – you were just ahead of the curve. At this point in time any car company adding an SUV to their line would be crazy, so you were simply prescient! Look how long Detroit took to notice smaller cars from Japanese carmakers eating their margins whole…

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/patriciasclater Patricia Sclater

    Jack, I see those efforts as laziness also. Further, I see them as piggybacking off the success of brands the likes of eScreen and iPhone. I wonder whether programming language isn’t implicated as well: C++, anyone? Or maybe, in the United States, academic stardom: Most American readers would recognize an A+.
    Looking more broadly at this question, I see the “a” and “i” trends as trying to emulate the effectiveness of “e” as a branding device. But I don’t think they’ll succeed; I’m afraid they’re derivative at this point. How often does a single product–email–capture the attention of much of the globe? Surely email, having come into common use and thus spawning many brand-name variants, is a triumphant exception to the rule.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/pub/steve-miller/0/781/708 Steve Miller

    From a designer’s perspective – we don’t just see the “single letter” we see design, graphic cartouche, color and unique fonts that link to a well established brand. I think consumers today are more brand aware, more intelligent and perfectly capable of making these connections. Examples in the USA include the “Y” for the YMCA (already reduced to 4 letters – now recognizable with one letter), “W” for WordPress and for Women’s Wear Daily, “O” for Overstock.com and Oprah Magazine, the “t” for twitter, the “f” for facebook… these single letter treatments are essentially logos for these organizations. The cautionary side of this is that the organizations must recognize these implementations as part of their graphic standards ongoing and treat them with the same consideration they would any other part of their trade dress. In many cases this single letter truncation is spurred by customer use – users will, in conversation, create colloquial, conversational abbreviations that fall into wider acceptance for ease-of-use that the company may see as an advantage to branding – like “KFC” for Kentucky Fried Chicken or the example I first used – the “Y” for YMCA

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/wordsmithcreatives Ram A

    You are right, Steve…
    The overall design, how the font of the single letter sticks in consumers’ mind and subliminal impact the image creates are important.
    Most consumers are smart enough to understand how brands are generally promoted.
    The single letter truncation will make sense only when companies or organizations understand the importance of unique representation of the essence of their brand through color and symbols accompanying the single letter.