DuetsBlog Collaborations in Creativity & the Law

Taking the Cake With Suggestive Trademarks?

Posted in Branding, Food, Marketing, Sight, Trademarks

John Reinan provided yesterday a marketer’s perspective that questioned the value of coined trademarks. In my experience, as a trademark type, one place on the spectrum of distinctiveness where both trademark and marketing types can have their cake and eat it too, is the delicious category of suggestive trademarks.

From the legal side of the coin, suggestive marks are immediately protectable and generally enjoy the additional benefit of their inherent strength. On the marketing side of the coin, suggestive marks communicate something about the goods (but not as directly or immediately as descriptive marks do), so the marketer need not start from scratch in educating the consumer, as one must do with coined marks.

For some additional posts discussing the spectrum of distinctiveness, the important line between descriptive and suggestive trademarks, and related issues, see here, here, here, and here.

What is often forgotten about the fine line in differentiating between descriptive and suggestive marks is the subjectivity of making the determination. In practice, this can be a rather fuzzy sort of bright line. What is also frequently forgotten is how narrow the rights can be with some suggestive marks — those said to be highly suggestive or very close to the merely descriptive border.

A stroll down the baking aisle in your local grocery store provides a nice place to illustrate both points. For example, when shopping for cake mix it is hard to miss the apparent importance of "moist" plus a superlative as key selling points — "moist" being a merely descriptive term that immediately and directly describes a desirable characteristic of a finished cake. Indeed, Betty Crocker has Super Moist, Pillsbury has Moist Supreme, and Duncan Hines has Moist Deluxe:

    

These three different brands compete with one another on the very same store shelves and the fact that they peacefully coexist and compete directly without any apparent consumer confusion (despite their similar names) helps illustrate the point of how narrow in scope some suggestive trademark rights can be.

On the point about subjectivity, as the links above demonstrate, you might be surprised to learn that the Super Moist mark was permitted registration by the U.S. Trademark Office as a suggestive and inherently distinctive trademark. Whereas, the Moist Supreme and Moist Deluxe marks were considered merely descriptive, and the U.S. Trademark Office required evidence of acquired distinctiveness (a/k/a secondary meaning) before registration was permitted on the Principal Register.

So, where descriptiveness ends and suggestiveness begins can often depend on who is asked to apply the legal test. Perhaps that is why the U.S. Trademark Office is supposed to approve marks as suggestive, when in doubt. Can someone explain the doubt in favor of Super Moist, and the lack of doubt with Moist Supreme and Moist Deluxe? Because I’m not feeling the need to exercise much imagination, thought or perception to appreciate that each brand communicates a really, really moist cake.