–James Mahoney, Razor’s Edge Communications

Every now and then, lightning strikes where a creative team sees a terrific, fast-turn opportunity to have a little fun. I think of them as targets of opportunity.

We had one some years ago when we were in the midst of creating a series of mailers for a search-technology client. Early in December, the spark hit and we scrambled to make this idea happen in time:

Looks like lightning struck for the GMC creative team when the LA Rams made it to the Super Bowl. I don’t know if this was a national ad, but it appeared on my Super Bowl Sunday morning doorstep in its full-page, Boston Globe glory.

Perfectly timed delivery 12 hours before the game, perfectly targeted to Boston.

The only quibble is whether there actually was a competition to introduce the first six-function tailgate, or even if that’s a deciding factor for a substantial percentage of truck buyers. It would have been perfect all around if it were announcing that GMC sales had been tops.

But that’s a minor point. This one’s a winner for the creative team and GMC for seeing the opportunity, seeing the target, and hitting the short window to take advantage of it.

— Jessica Gutierrez Alm, Attorney

No one does the Carlton quite like Carlton Banks.  (Queue Tom Jones’s It’s Not Unusual.)  Since actor Alfonso Ribeiro first performed the unique dance on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, it has been readily associated with him.  When the dance move recently appeared as a purchasable avatar dance in the popular video game, Fortnite, players quickly recognized Carlton’s signature move.

 

Fortnite is a battle royale-style combat game in which players, through their avatars, fight to the finish.  In-game purchases allow players to download character skins, clothing, and emotes (dances) for their avatars to perform on the battlefield.  In January 2018, the makers of Fortnite introduced a new emote available for purchase: a Carlton-esque dance called the Fresh.  When a player purchases and downloads the Fresh emote, the player’s avatar can perform the dance move on command.

Ribeiro filed suit against Fortnite creator, Epic Games, last month in a California federal district court.  The suit has been widely reported as a copyright case, prompting many to analyze whether short dance moves like the Carlton are eligible for copyright protections.  Their collective answer: probably not.

Copyright Choreography

While choreographic works are eligible for copyright, the US Copyright Office states that it will not register for copyright “short dance routines consisting of only a few movement or steps with minor linear or spatial variations, even if a routine is novel or distinctive.”  Individual steps or movements, such as the Waltz step, hustle step and grapevine are not copyrightable, according to the Copyright Office’s guidance in Circular 52.  Social dances are similarly not eligible for copyright registration.  “[U]ncopyrightable social dances are generally intended to be performed by members of the public for the enjoyment of the dancers themselves,” as opposed to registrable choreographic works, which are “intended to be executed by skilled performers before an audience.”  At most, it is unclear whether the Carlton is complex enough, or includes enough movements or length, to be eligible for copyright protections.  Of course even if the Carlton dance is copyrightable, NBC Productions might have something to say about ownership of the copyright.

But Ribeiro’s suit against the makers of Fortnite alleges more than mere copyright infringement.  In addition, Ribeiro is suing Epic Games for violation of his statutory and common law right of publicity.

Vanna White-bot, Here’s Johnny Toilets, and the Right of Publicity

In general, the right of publicity protects an individual’s right to control the commercial use of her name and likeness.  In California, courts have defined a broad right of publicity.

Federal courts have determined that the California common law right of publicity is not strictly limited to an individual’s name and likeness.  In White v. Samsung Electronics, Vanna White sued Samsung for its depiction of a robot adorned with blond wig, gown, and jewelry in a VCR ad.  971 F.2d 1395 (9th Cir. 1992).  The familiar robot was posed next to a gameshow letter board reminiscent of the Wheel of Fortune.  The caption read, “Longest-running game show. 2012 A.D.”  Notably, the case is from 1992, and the ad was part of a campaign depicting use of various Samsung products in a futuristic setting.  Recognizing that although the defendants did not actually use White’s name or image, the court determined that the ad was clearly intended to depict White and presented colorable right of publicity claim.

In another case, the Ninth Circuit held that Ford Motor’s use of a Bette Midler sound-alike voice was a violation of Midler’s right of publicity, even without any use of Midler’s name or image.  Midler v. Ford Motor Co., 849 F.2d 460 (9th Cir. 1988).  And in Carson v. Here’s Johnny Portable Toilets, the Sixth Circuit held that the defendant’s use of the phrase “Here’s Johnny” to market portable toilets was a misappropriation of Carson’s persona.  810 F.2nd 104 (6th Cir. 1987)

In light of this precedent, Ribeiro’s right of publicity claims seem stronger than his copyright claims.  The complaint also includes claims under the Lanham Act and California statutes for unfair competition.  Ribeiro alleges that the company’s use of the dance move creates a false impression that either Epic Games created the dance move or that Ribeiro provided sponsorship.

What are your thoughts on these unfair competition claims?   Are they stronger than the copyright infringement claims?

The Vanna White case also included a Lanham Act unfair competition claim.  The court in that case recognized a celebrity’s ability to bring such claims to protect her persona.  The court permitted the Lanham Act claim to proceed to a jury along with White’s right of publicity claim.  Ultimately, the jury found for White and awarded over $400,000.

Others Join the Fight

Ribeiro is not the only artist to challenge Epic Games on the IP battlefield.  Rapper 2 Milly (Terrance Ferguson) sued Epic Games for creating an emote based on his Milly Rock dance.  And most recently, Backpack Kid (Russell Horning) sued Epic Games for introducing an emote modeled after his viral Floss dance.  Both complaints include claims for copyright infringement, violation of right of publicity, and unfair competition claims.

– Mark Prus, Principal, NameFlash

In a recent article in The New York Times, John Williams discussed the evolution of our language through the “vowel dropping” trend.

He mentions the use of vowel dropping in naming tech companies, as tech companies like Tumblr and Flickr dropped vowels “…both for distinctiveness and because the altered names made it easier to trademark, claim domain names on the internet and conduct other practical business.”

In my book The Science of BrandingI noted that the human brain has the ability to “fill in” the gaps caused by vowel dropping. For example, read this sentence and you’ll see how distortion of words does not impair communication:

“It deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr all the ltteers in a wrod are. You can stlil raed it wouthit a porbelm bcuseae the huamn mnid wroks by a porecss of ptatern rceigontion. It dtemrines maennig bfoere porecssnig dteails.”

Isn’t tihs amzanig? Your brain can make sense of even the most chaotic situation.

But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Dropping vowels is not always a good strategy for name development. While dropping vowels can make acquisition of .com domains easier, it does not guarantee that getting a trademark will be easier. One important reason for avoiding this strategy is it can distort consumer communication.

One of the most important considerations in evaluating a name is the ability of people to remember the name. Test your “day after recall” with some members of the target audience. Make sure they can pronounce and spell it correctly the day after hearing it. If they can’t repeat it and get it right, then they won’t be able to find your product or service on the web. If they can’t properly recall it then they won’t be able to tell a friend about the name in a way that the friend can find it. Net, net, if the name is too difficult to recall properly, then it won’t be a good name (unless of course you have a lot of money to invest in awareness-generating advertising).

–James Mahoney, Razor’s Edge Communications

Back in the ’70s, National Geographic ran a story on Boston firefighters.

The writer mentioned a barb that a fireman tossed his way. “Ya gonna do another silver jets piece, huh?” Adding sarcastically, “Ya know: silver jets of water piercing the dark sky as they bravely battle the inferno…”

I owe that firefighter a debt. Since I read his diss, Silver Jets has been a mental caution sign against veering too far into the preciously romantic. (Well, most of the time, anyway; all us writers occasionally succumb to the siren’s song.)

Which brings me to Moen’s Silver Jets moment: creative work driven by its presumable campaign premise, “It’s about time we recognize all water does for us, and give it the attention it deserves.”

The Moen website has lots of solid information. Most of it is presented well and unambiguously. That’s a good thing, since we generally want only three things from our faucets: style, function, and reliability. Everything else is on the margins.

And yet, even in commodity markets—and maybe especially there—the urge to creatively distinguish the company runs strong. Channeled and managed well, it can produce good outcomes.

But when the primary focus shifts, unnoticed, to the creative idea from the business objective, you can wind up in Pittsburgh when you intended to go to Minneapolis.*

Here’s how I think that happened at Moen:

  • They wanted a new campaign to distinguish the company.
  • Someone(s) got the idea to “celebrate water.”
  • That led eventually to the premise that “Water designs our life.”
  • That led to some excited creative exploration casting water as the unsung hero/benevolent star of human existence.
  • That led to casting Moen as the combination of Alexander Graham Bell and Frank Lloyd Wright when it comes to water.
  • That led eventually to the campaign theme: “Water designs our life. Who designs for Water?”

(Spoiler alert: Moen’s answer: “Moen designs for Water.” Actual answer: Every company that makes something related to water.)

And that’s where Moen’s creative juices really go Silver Jets. Some examples sprinkled throughout Moen’s website:

  • “With 1.5 trillion gallons of water running through our faucets each year, we feel a tremendous responsibility to make sure every one of your interactions with water is a meaningful one.”
  • “Moen products don’t just make you look smart; they leave you feeling inspired.”
  • “As a company we’ve given over to the power and beauty of water. Throughout our history, we’ve learned to respect and honor it. So that makes us a company that not only celebrates water, but that also happens to make faucets.”
  • “Throughout history, water has shaped the world we live in—where we gather, what we do on the weekends and what rooms we make room for. So it’s about time we recognize all water does for us, and give it the attention it deserves.”

Those are some major-league Silver Jets. They speak to lofty aesthetic. They paint glowing watercolor images. They demonstrate what happens when marketing and creative exploration become unmoored from reality and business objectives.

Last, for now, here’s a piece of SethGodin-bait: Predictably, Moen’s creative drift inevitably culminated in a gorgeous, high-budget, 60-second art film designed to…well, you tell me. You can see it here, or by clicking on the “watch the film” link on Moen’s site.

Where did it all go sideways? Around the fourth bullet of the process described above. Creative freewheeling is a necessary part of producing good work. But so is having at least one person keeping an eye on the compass and able to trim the sails.

* Heading north on the Mississippi River will bring you to Minneapolis unless you lose focus and get sidetracked onto the Ohio River, which will bring you to Pittsburgh.

–James Mahoney, Razor’s Edge Communications

I try to focus my commentary on good creative work. Otherwise, I’d be posting multiple times a day because there’s so much mediocre or outright poor work.

But today, I can’t resist

Moen’s running full-page ads for its new Flo product. On a field of irregularly scattered, different-size circles filled with ones and zeroes—”digital” water, get it?—the headline reads We Hacked Water (So It Can’t Hack You).

Huh?

The body copy is equally puzzling:

“…While [water is] seen as a vital resource that powers life, it’s also a network in your home that can be programmed. Introducing Flo by Moen, a revolutionary device that takes smart home technology to water with the first-of-its-kind whole home water supply control system. Intuitive design gives you the power to control, conserve and secure your water to protect the things you love.”

Okayyyy… So nefarious characters may hack into my water pipes and open the floodgates of my faucets? Or add some unhealthy stuff to my water so it “hacks” me, like security consultants say could happen to municipal water-treatment plants?

Since that doesn’t make any sense at all, I knew I had to DuetsBlog about it, and so headed to the Moen website.

Turns out that Flo is a control valve that detects whether there’s a leak somewhere in your home’s water system. Via smartphone (of course) it notifies you if it detects one. Moen notes some pretty good reasons why this might be a good idea.

In fact, the website offers a lot of good nuggets that you could use to build a compelling argument. So why on earth would Moen and the creative team go with such an opaque and confusing storyline, especially when introducing a unique and useful new product line?

I suspect a couple of factors diverted them.

Elsewhere on its website, Moen’s trying to chart new marketing waters with a lofty corporate story about being a company that has “given over to the power and beauty of water…[and] that also happens to make faucets.” (Commenting further on this is a subject for another day.)

Since they apparently want to be seen as the spiritual lovechild of water and more than just a fixture manufacturer, leading with the practical value of Flo isn’t hip enough. Rather, Flo advertising needs to signal that Moen’s in step with the brave new “smart” world.

And that leads to seductive creative ideas that make sense only when you know how they got there. I’m certain that everyone involved thinks this ad nails it because they know what they intend to communicate. Meanwhile, many of us scratch our heads to try to figure out what they heck they’re talking about.

Contrast that with this on the website: “Runs daily tests to ensure your home plumbing network is running efficiently. Continuously checks for leaks and potential vulnerabilities in your pipes. Automatically shuts off water to your home in the event of catastrophic failure.”

Freud said, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” And sometimes, the best campaign is one that just says it plain.

– Mark Prus, Principal, NameFlash

Mastercard has become the latest company to shift to a “no name” approach to branding.

Of course, they aren’t the first to do this (see Nike, Starbucks, Apple, Target, etc.). We are living in an image-driven world (e.g., Instagram) so this trend is not surprising.

A Mastercard spokesperson said: “As the consumer and commerce landscape continues to evolve, the Mastercard Symbol represents Mastercard better than one word ever could, and the flexible modern design will allow it to work seamlessly across the digital landscape.”

One thing that many people forget is the millions (billions?) of dollars invested in the Mastercard name itself. And yes, that Venn diagram logo design is on every single credit card that Mastercard offers. It is no surprise that “…over 80% of people recognized the brand without the name.”

Does this trend mean that professional logo designers are more in demand or professional name developers are doomed? Nope. Mastercard could not have started with a snappy logo and assumed that everyone would get it. They spent years investing in their brand name and now they can reap the benefits. But you can’t just skip to the “image only” logo design. You have to create the meaning first, and that requires a great brand name (and logo!).

— Jessica Gutierrez Alm, Attorney

The Boy Scouts of America (BSA)’s decision last year to end its boys-only policy was met with mixed reactions.  Some lauded it as a progressive victory.  Others, including former Girl Scouts, viewed it as a thinly-veiled corporate strategy and a loss for girls.  As part of an early adopter program, more than 3,000 girls have already signed up to be BSA Cub Scouts.

To help solidify its more inclusive policies, the Boy Scouts also announced a new branding strategy.  Beginning in 2019, the organization will be known as Scouts BSA.  The rebranding efforts include a new tag line: “Scout Me In.”

The Girl Scouts of the United States of America (GSUSA) has been openly and decisively against the Boy Scouts’ policy change.  In a public letter to the Boy Scouts, the GSUSA expressed its concern regarding what it perceived as the “short-sightedness of thinking that running a program specifically tailored to boys can simply be translated to girls.”

In a blog post on its website, GSUSA wrote, “We believe strongly in the importance of the all-girl, girl-led, and girl-friendly environment that Girl Scouts provides, which creates a free space for girls to learn and thrive.”  It continued, “The benefit of the single-gender environment has been well-documented by educators, scholars, other girl- and youth-serving organizations, and Girl Scouts and their families. Girl Scouts offers a one-of-a-kind experience for girls with a program tailored specifically to their unique developmental needs.”

The Girl Scouts are now suing the Boy Scouts for trademark infringement, trademark dilution, and unfair competition.  The GSUSA asserts that its right to use the SCOUT and SCOUTING marks in connection with development programs for girls has been long recognized by the TTAB and the Boy Scouts.  GSUSA notes that the two organizations’ use of the SCOUT, SCOUTS and SCOUTING marks have, until recently, “either been preceded by words like BOY or GIRL . . . or appeared in a context making clear that the programs at issue were developed by one organization or the other.”  In the complaint, the Girl Scouts provide evidence of confusion among the public resulting from the Boy Scouts’ use of the ungendered terms.  Cited examples include cases of girls accidentally signing up for Boy Scouts programs and parents believing the two organizations have merged.

The GSUSA seeks an order blocking the Boy Scouts from using SCOUT, SCOUTS, SCOUTING, or SCOUTS BSA without “an inherently distinctive or distinguishing terms appearing immediately before it,” in connection with services directed to girls.

This is not the first time the two groups have fought over branding.  Prior to 1917, the Girl Scouts were instead known as the Girl Guides.  When the change to “Girl Scouts” was announced, the chief executive of the Boy Scouts accused the group of “trivialize[ing]” and “sissify[ing]” the term.  According to the Atlantic, the Boy Scouts even sued over the name change.

–James Mahoney, Razor’s Edge Communications

It was festival time in Italy when I passed this food truck at an Abruzzo village’s celebration. I understand a little Italian (and speak even less), so what initially caught my eye was the crowd and the fun-loving couple serving up the goodies.

I knew that “Amici delle” on the sign and t-shirts means “friends of,” but didn’t know what “Fregne” means. Turns out, it’s the name that Elena Iannone gave to her special take on a type of Abruzzo pastry that she and her husband sell from the truck.

Only later, when I was gazing at the photo, did I spot the clever warning on the sign in the bottom-right corner of the case:

“Gli amici delle ‘Fregne’ declinano ogni responsabilita da un eventuale dipendenza!” (Loosely: Friends of the “Fregne” take no responsibility for you becoming addicted!)

How’s that for a not too subtle boast about the quality of your tasty pastries?

Not content with that, though, the Amici take it further. The offerings have names like Exotic, Delicate, Greedy, Widow, Kinky, and a few others that hint at the meaning of Fregne, which none of my Italian dictionaries defines. Suffice to say that the jovial Elena has both a sense of humor and a marketing instinct.

Most of the time when we talk about marketing and advertising campaigns, the subject companies are well-known, at least regionally, and often nationally or internationally. But lots of little one-offs, like the Amici delle Fregne, produce creative, consistently on-brand approaches that are qualitatively right up there with the big leaguers.

And like the big leaguers, when your marketing is good, your product better live up to it. Based on what I saw that night, when the Amici were happily handing over a steady stream of Fregne, they more than deliver on that front.

–James Mahoney, Razor’s Edge Communications

Every now and then, I find pearls floating in the tide of print advertising. These two, for example.

First is the Kiton ad, one of a series the company is running. I liked the whole look and feel of it right away, but didn’t know anything about the company.

I like it even better after doing a little research and learning that Kiton prides itself on its fabrics and the quality of the clothing it creates using them.

These ads work on multiple levels. First, they stand out both for their striking simplicity and for the visual puzzle: why the red dot covering the head? (At least, it’s red to my color-challenged eye.)

Beyond that, the more you look at one of the ads, the more attention to detail you see. There’s deep creative thought behind these.

More important, the first ad you see imprints visual clues that unmistakably identify every subsequent ad you see as a Kiton. In the sea of luxury-good advertising, you too often have to glance at the company name to see whose ad it is.

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the big creative questions is, “How can we indelibly link the company or product name to the creative idea?” Kiton’s campaign achieves this, not least by linking the red-dot head with the red dot on the Kiton i.

Incidentally, the dot over the head probably has an additional benefit for Kiton. Rates and residuals for models vary depending on the image used. Because the Kiton models are unidentifiable, their rate is likely lower than if we could see their faces. Small change in the larger scheme of things, but a benefit for Kiton nevertheless.

The other pearl is this ad for the Omega Seamaster Diver 300M. In case it’s not clear, the tuxedoed Daniel Craig is up to his chin in water. It’s a great visual that pays off the promise that the watch “will take you from the bottom of the sea, to the center of attention, and the top of the world.” Form and function married with fashion illustrated by a brilliant concept.

– Mark Prus, Principal, NameFlash

Last year I wrote a “Change Your Name Already” blog post about Overstock.com on DuetsBlog which described the painful way that Overstock.com was trying to communicate that their name did not fit what they were doing as a business…”we are so much more!” My response was to politely suggest that they call me to help them find a new name that did fit their business model.

Recently MailChimp launched an ad campaign that approached the “our name does not fit our business model” issue from a different angle. In this effort, they celebrate the fact that they have outgrown their name and tell prospective customers that they would like to help them do the same thing.

Brilliant…simply brilliant. Both Overstock.com and MailChimp have outgrown their names, but Overstock.com communicates it in a way that makes the potential customer feel stupid (“you thought we only sold overstock items but you are stupid…we actually do more!”). MailChimp admits they do more than what their name implies and desire to have the same impact on the prospective customer’s business, thereby leaving prospective customers feeling hopeful. Big difference.

So the CEO of Overstock.com should still call me to initiate a name development project…but the CEO of MailChimp can just take a bow!