– Draeke Weseman, Weseman Law Office, PLLC

Last week, the Chicago Sun Times profiled Loeb & Loeb attorney Douglas Masters, the NCAA’s outside counsel in charge of trademark enforcement during March Madness. Licensing the official sponsorships is big business, and enforcement demands require Masters to send out hundreds of cease-and-desist letters to both accidental infringers

Trademark lawyers need to face the facts. Despite decades of ardent counseling to the contrary, business executives and marketers are not only testing the waters with the treatment of their most valuable brands as verbs, in some cases, they are diving in head first, committing substantial resources and effort toward the clearly stated goal of "verbing up" and having their brands used as

"What am I?"

Every invention begs this essential question of identity.

The answer is found in the product’s descriptor. A descriptor defines a thing, categorizing it, framing it, positioning it and signaling its intended future.

A product that doesn’t claim to break new ground adopts its category’s standard convention. For example, a new, run-of-the-mill digital camera would be marketed as a "digital camera".

A revolutionary product, on the other hand, deserves an innovative product descriptor. And, sometimes, a me-too product benefits from one, too.

The trouble is, innovation is easier done than said.

I wrote in this article about the "brander’s paradox": Human instincts make us wary of unfamiliar and different things, yet differentiation is essential to a product’s success.

By definition, an innovation is unfamiliar. How can its product descriptor differentiate without triggering people’s fear of the unknown?

The New York Times gives us an idea in this recent article about product descriptors,

"When people encounter something they don’t recognize, they make sense of it by associating it with something familiar."

The most effective new descriptors combine familiar terms in unfamiliar ways. They make product function or form clearly understood, even upon first exposure. Novel descriptors insufficiently informative should at the very least pique interest.

Descriptors that differ

The products shown below the jump illustrate different approaches:


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Full disclosure…I own Google stock. I like their products and their potential. However, I am more than a bit concerned about how they use their names and trademarks.

Microsoft® names its products in a traditional fashion. Microsoft is the company; names like Windows, Silverlight, Bing are clearly the products. A very logical naming architecture that makes it clear where

Although intellectual property lawyers of the Dr. No variety may not like to admit it — I submit that, not all slippery slopes are created equal. While some slippery slope cautions might prevent a few bumps and bruises in traveling along a particular path (e.g., the one on the left below), I suspect far fewer slippery slope cautions actually prevent life-ending falls from perilous cliffs (e.g., the one on the right below), yet other man-made slippery slopes specifically are designed for fun and enjoyment — not danger — and have generated enormous sales over the years (e.g., WHAM-O’s SLIP’N SLIDE brand products).

  

So, putting aside Professor Douglas Walton’s teaching that the slippery slope argument is “often treated as a fallacy,” it is worth asking what brand of slippery slope most accurately represents the risk associated with marketers using their brands and trademarks as verbs?

As discussed in Part I of my Just Verb It? series, many marketers love the idea of having their brands embraced as verbs, but many trademark lawyers totally forbid any “brandverbing,” i.e., “mis-using” brands (adjectives) as verbs: “Why? To prevent brand names and trademarks from becoming generic names and part of the public domain for anyone to freely use, even competitors.”

No doubt, genericide — the ultimate fear of using brands as verbs — equals certain trademark death, a horrible result from both marketing and legal perspectives; but, I submit it doesn’t necessarily follow that brandverbing activities automatically result in trademark death or genericide. To be sure, far more than a single act of verbing a trademark or brand must occur before a majority of the relevant consuming public no longer sees the claimed trademark or brand as identifying and distinguishing certain products or services as coming from a single source. Given this, there must be an opportunity to engage in some thoughtful and creative level of brandverbing without committing trademark suicide, right?


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It is probably fair to say from my initial Just Verb It? post, the many articles referenced in that post, the substantial panel of commentary to the post, and additional interest in the topic, that at least two truths about “brandverbing” are beyond much, if any, debate: (1) Lawyers (including the International Trademark Association’s guidelines

There is a growing interest and, quite frankly, a dogged persistence among branding professionals to select brand names that have the ability and potential to be “verbed.” This makes trademark attorney types nervous and those of the “Dr. No” variety actually become unglued.

So, why the emphasis or fascination with verbs anyway? The answer apparently can be found in the definition of a verb: “A verb is a doing word (helping, grabbing).” This feature is appealing to marketers. In addition, some argue that “verbing” a brand extends its reach through effective “word of mouth branding.” Some feel so strongly about the marketing benefit they argue that “having the public utter your company name as a verb is like going to heaven without the inconvenience of dying. Getting ‘verbed’ is the ultimate accomplishment for any brand — the marketer’s Shangri-la.”

As marketing maven Seth Godin argued as early as 2005: “Nouns just sit there, inanimate lumps. Verbs are about wants and desires and wishes.” Given that limited binary choice, David Cameron’s recent and thoughtful “Brandverbing Brands” post on his OnBrands Blog, asks a reasonable question: “Wouldn’t you rather have your brand in the latter category?”

I’m wondering and you might be wondering too, what happened to door number three? We’ll get to that, patience.


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