Congratulations to Stanford University’s Women’s Volleyball Team, winning the NCAA DI National Championship this past weekend in Minneapolis’ Target Center, defeating Nebraska in Set 5:

The competition was incredible, a real seesaw battle, Stanford winning Set 1 (28-26), Nebraska Set 2 (25-22), Stanford Set 3 (25-16), Nebraska Set 4 (25-15), setting up the Set 5 tiebreaker.

Even from our elevated vantage point, it was a challenge to ignore Stanford’s wild band, erratic cheerleaders, and bizarre dancing tree, during the many breaks in the action.

The Stanford Tree, not in the University’s official logo and seal, instead the spastic and gyrating Tree mascot, is simply “a member of the band” — as the University has no “official” mascot.


As the Sets progressed, an interesting pattern emerged, but not related to the random, spontaneous, and irrreverent motions and defiant gestures of the merry band of cheerleaders and Tree mascot. Any choreography appeared impossible to script.

No, the pattern I noticed was that each of the first 4 Sets was won by the team that had its back to the band, in other words, turned 180 degrees away from the Stanford Tree.



In contrast, the losers through Set 4, always faced the Tree, in defeat, coincidence, I think not.

The teams switched sides at the close of each Set. During Set 5, with its back to the Tree, Stanford was up 8-7 at the half, then switched sides again to face the Tree, but somehow was able prevail, in the end, while facing the Tree, winning the 5th and final Set: 15-12.

So, with all this turning away from the Tree mascot, positioning the team to win a National Championship on the one hand, and disavowing the Tree mascot on the other hand, specifically rejecting it as not the University’s mascot, I’m left wondering, who owns it?

In other words, clearly there is intellectual property wrapped up in the Tree mascot costume, I’m seeing both trademark and copyright at work here, but really, who owns it?

Put yet another way, who should Reese’s call for a co-branding opportunity to have the Tree mascot appear on packaging for these little gems, or perhaps, the gems themselves?

Can the University automatically own the intellectual property in an “unofficial” mascot? What are the legal distinctions, if any, between official and unofficial mascots?

For what it’s worth, disavowing the Tree, and its unofficial status, apparently hasn’t prevented the University’s payment of NCAA fines against Stanford when the Tree is especially unruly.

At Stanford, it appears that the student selected by the band to perform as the Tree for the academic year, wears the costume created by his or her predecessor from the previous year.

As to copyright, do you suppose there is a work for hire arrangement in place? So, who would you call to license the IP associated with the Tree? Here is a list of the apparent creators.

You’re well aware of the fact that we have a burning desire for great brands and trademarks.

Outside Whole Foods last evening, with snow falling, I found a beautiful display of firewood:

A smile came to my face as I read the SnuggleWood brand name for this kiln-dried firewood.

We’ve written a lot about the many legal benefits of suggestive over descriptive trademarks.

I’m fortunate to have enjoyed many evenings snuggling with loved ones around a blazing fire.

Later, it also brought warm and toasty feelings to see a federal trademark registration exists:

Sadly though, the fire was doused after learning that an earlier, broader trademark registration for the single word SNUGGLEWOOD lapsed, extinguishing more than 15 years of nationwide priority.

Apparently ownership changed between the original 1998 filing and a decade later when renewal evidence was due, so the USPTO rejected the evidence, as no clear chain of title was provided.

It’s sad to see because trademark ownership and chain of title issues are preventable and fixable.

Let’s hope for the SnuggleWood brand that it is never burned by unregistered trademark rights that could have developed in remote geographic parts of the country before the new filing in 2014.

Debbie Laskey, MBA

Who owns the brand in your business? If your business is top heavy with numerous members in the C-Suite, this may be a difficult question to answer if you don’t have a Chief Marketing Officer. Your Chief Sales Officer may claim ownership, or your Chief Information Officer may claim ownership. Perhaps, your Chief Legal Officer may claim ownership. If you don’t have a large number of people in your C-Suite, your Chief Executive Officer may be the face of your brand and simultaneously leads your messaging.

But no matter who owns the brand in your business, there are three key responsibilities for the person in this role.

First, make sure that all brand tools are consistent. This means that all your digital assets including your main website, your blog, and all your social media accounts reflect the same look and feel; and make sure all your printed collateral also reflects the same look and feel (brochures, newsletters, flyers, annual reports, etc.). Make sure they all provide the same description about your company and brand, feature the same logo and/or tagline, and include the same color palette. For example, you would look twice and not trust a site with a purple Coca-Cola – those iconic red and white colors are as famous as the product they represent.

Second, make sure your brand has a defined voice. If you provide professional services, for example, legal or financial services, you may use formal language that matches your industry. But if you sell consumer products, your ads and emails may be full of informal lingo or slang. Think detailed emails versus brief texts. Also, depending on your industry, there may be appropriate words that would be considered essential to include in your brand messaging. For example, professional sports have terminology that is important in their branding – football ads can easily integrate “touchdowns” and “hail Mary’s,” and baseball ads can easily integrate “home runs” and “shut outs.”

Third, create brand advocates. As the owner of your brand, you want to welcome employees into the branding process so that they understand their importance in sharing your brand story with the world. Since all employees are brand advocates, take the time to educate employees about your brand’s strengths during the onboarding phase and also re-train on a regular basis. Make the training fun and always have a smile on your face.

What do you do as your brand’s owner? Please chime in.

– Abby V. Reiner, Brand Director, Wounded Warrior Project

Fine (red) Lines

Nonprofits walk a fine line between wanting everyone to feel a part of the mission without allowing everyone to use its trademarks resulting in dilution or infringement of the brand. Sometimes the very well intentioned can do more harm than good. When a nonprofit protects the integrity of its brand and assets, it unfortunately must contend with the negative public relations ramifications, justified or not. So how can a nonprofit proactively walk that fine line? The brand community needs to elevate the conversation about the legal side of brand protection for nonprofits.

Design, color palette, logo, personality, promise, rebrand, experience, engagement, equity – these are some of the words and concepts in which many lovers of brand have been so engrossed. But as brand managers evolve into those of a strategic asset, so must their vocabulary.

TRADEMARK! INFRINGEMENT! FRAUD! Traditionally viewed as the dark side of brand where lawyers dwell and PR professionals remain on their toes, intellectual property and the protection and management thereof is a place of which we brand folks should be well aware. Unfortunately, not enough brand managers and executives are talking about the strategy of managing both brand and intellectual property challenges.

The brand and legal disciplines, and subsequent strategies written around them, reside in relatively distinct arenas. Nonprofit brand research doesn’t uncover anything terribly dissimilar to for-profit brand research. Both sectors use the same buzzwords and concepts to build the brand, make it relevant, deliver on brand promises, etc. But research of “intellectual property” very narrowly uncovers the subject and subsequent strategies in the legal and for-profit arenas. A non-lawyer in the nonprofit industry (eh hem…me), responsible for the organization’s trademark portfolio, could lose their way in complex and abstruse intellectual property legalese, and/or be unable to easily or readily relate the available information to the nonprofit industry.

To Trust or Not To Trust

There is a fascinating dichotomy between trust and protection. Across all brands, both for-profit and nonprofit, the element of trust reigns supreme. An organization builds a brand based on its constituents trusting in the product, service, ideals, and/or vision. The brand is now valuable. It means something to people. The organization means something to the very people it’s trying to serve. The organization must protect that value, that meaning. Yet, protecting what is so valuable can actually and often erode trust. For example: Cue the knight in shining armor to ward off anyone who dare threaten brand value and the deep emotional, personal meaning the brand has built so thoughtfully for so many. All hail the protector! But wait…he hasn’t a sword? He’s armed with a “cease & desist?” Well that tool is too harsh. What the knight is protecting has grown too large for the taste of some. The knight is now declared a “trademark bully.”

Brand is about building trust. As it concerns trademark usage, however, there is an odd and apparent breakdown in consumer expectations that occurs with nonprofit supporters. Many supporters feel entitled to “use” a nonprofit’s trademarks to promote the nonprofit, drive sales of products that may result in donations to the nonprofit, promote the individual or commercial entity using the trademark, or to promote a similar-in-mission charity of less prominence.

Can we draw any comparisons between stakeholders (for profit) and donors (nonprofit)? Is there a feeling of entitlement dependent on how one is “invested” in the organization? Or does the level of awareness of a wildly successful for-profit company’s famous logo, for example, raise it to such a revered, iconic status that nobody dares mess with it? (Clearly with the exception of “professional” counterfeit folks, for whom I’ll leave a retail brand expert to expound upon.) And if people use the famous logo without permission and the for-profit brand says “no” or “take that down,” why does the media not accuse the for-profit brand of aggressive trademark practices, whereas Susan G. Komen for a Cure®, for example, has faced similar allegations with headlines like “Is Susan G. Komen for a Cure® a trademark bully?”

You Big Bully

What happens when the trademark owner takes protecting their trademark too far as to be deemed as domineering? The best examples of crossing the line can be witnessed with non-profit organizations.”

Why are nonprofits criticized for protecting their trademarks in the same manner a for-profit protects its portfolio? Too often and at the peril of some nonprofits, the worlds of brand and legal exist in separate arenas, and more strategies that integrate the two must be developed for nonprofit brand professionals. The more professionals are armed with this knowledge, the more information is disseminated into the media and general public to further explain the “why” behind brand and trademark protection. This public education may also further build trust rather than erode it.

Blurred Lines

Customers are no longer just consumers; they are co-creators. They are not just passive members of an audience; they are active members of a community. They want to be part of something; to belong; to influence; to engage. They want to be right there WITH you. Purpose needs to be shared. However, this brand-homerun-level of engagement blurs the lines and potentially how people define and interpret “ownership.” It makes grey in the relationship between customers and companies, the feeling of ownership (and thus use) versus actual ownership (and thus legal right to use).

Thankfully, nonprofits are increasingly moving away from using the brand as a purely fundraising and PR tool, to that of a critical strategic asset. Instead of having responsibility for the brand reside within the marketing, communication, or fundraising, as a key strategic asset, responsibility for the brand resides with the entire executive team.

Paramount to the success of that shift is a more well-rounded definition, understanding, and education of brand’s function outside of marketing, communication, and fundraising. By definition, a brand is such because it has a unique identity. Without an understanding of how to create, protect, and manage that unique identity in the eyes of the law, an organization could very well lose it.

No Such Thing As Bad Publicity?

To protect and maintain brand value, some attorneys may advise vigilant trademark monitoring and enforcement. But chasing down every unauthorized trademark use is time-consuming and expensive — and ultimately, counterproductive. There is an inherent increased risk factor to nonprofits conducting the same monitoring and enforcement activities as for-profits due to the nature by which nonprofits are “judged.”

Conversely to the negative attention, nonprofit brands rely heavily on the media to efficiently and effectively raise awareness for their cause. Widespread media coverage of the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, for example, triggered the largest outpouring of international aid ever seen. There must be a balance struck between brand exposure and brand protection; and an elevated discourse, understanding, and shift in how nonprofits are judged.

The End

The brand is not an end unto itself, but rather a tool to continue to fulfill the mission. And trademarks serve as a shortcut (positive or negative) for the public to judge the quality of charitable services, the caliber of programs, and the credibility of information provided. Policing your trademarks is not an option. It’s an affirmative, legal duty.