– Jason Voiovich, Director of Corporate Marketing, Logic PD

Don’t get me wrong.  My two children elevate their weekly Heinz intake regimen to near Olympian discipline.  But me?  I enjoy a good dollop with pound of fries at the Lion’s Tap, but I haven’t given America’s second-favorite red condiment a second thought since John Kerry ran for the White House (salsa is first, albeit not always red).

That all changed a few weeks ago when a new Heinz bottle made its way home from Super Target.

This Heinz bottle was different. I learned I could personalize my Heinz bottle for special occasions – birthdays, weddings, bar mitzvahs – whatever!

That’s sort of cool.  I would never have thought I could do that.  Sure, the last time I was in Las Vegas I bought some personalized M&Ms from a neat little machine at their trademark store, but a bottle of ketchup?

I discovered Heinz has been played this game before.  A couple of years ago, it ran with a series of celebrity sayings inside its iconic label.  (Must have missed that one).  And after a little research and a little thinking, I’ve seen brand tricks like this all over the place.

Each of these iconic brands is toying with its visual brand identity to one degree or another.  Heinz is pretty tame (it keeps the “Heinz” text intact).  Google has merciless fun at its logo’s expense – inviting schoolchildren into the fun.  Personally, I couldn’t get enough of Google PAC-MAN. Don’t click on the link if you want to get anything done today.  Perrier ditches the name altogether, using new words to describe the brand in its iconic logotype.  The classic Absolut campaign takes advantage of the bottle’s shape as a brand element.

The new buzzword for this type of logo-play is a “fluid trademark”, which seems to me like a game of “how much can I get away with” from a legal perspective.  In other words, at what point is my trademark minimally recognizable, and therefore, protectable?

So why the inevitable legal headache?

I think I know.

This is a perfect application of an oldie but a goodie in the communication field – the Elaboration Likelihood Model – or ELM for short.

As the simple graphic implies, people process information differently depending on how much they want to think about a decision.  To illustrate, let’s look at two purchase decisions, one for ketchup (to stick with the theme), and one for a new car.

For ketchup, so says the theory, we will use the “peripheral” route.  We won’t think too much about it.  From an advertising perspective, that usually means catchy jingles, cents-off coupons, and lowbrow ads – just enough to trigger the impulse to buy when we see it in the store.

For the car, we’ll use the “central” route.  We have both the ability (online reviews, comparison sites, test drives, etc.) and the motivation (expensive!) to “elaborate” (think about) our decision.  Emotion isn’t out the picture here, but the decision is usually quite a bit more considered and rational.

Using ELM, we can now understand the value of a fluid trademark.

Playing unexpectedly with the Heinz trademark doesn’t elevate a ketchup purchase to the status of a negotiating a price for a new car, but it certainly moves it along the continuum.  And in marketing, that’s gold.  We pay dearly for mindshare, and for numb purchase decisions like condiments, the drumbeat of advertising and coupon stuffing gets expensive fast.

A fluid trademark strategy makes us think about Heinz just that much more.  My guess is that it’s worth at least two to three broadcast ad spots during the same period.  Not a bad ROI, huh? (You listening, my graphic designer friends?).

Does it work for everyone?  No.  The novelty is in its unexpectedness, and unexpected implies you’ve spent enough time and reps to create the “expected” in the first place.  But for those brands that do fit the bill, I’m thinking fluid trademarks are worth the legal squishiness.