Credit: Local Solutions

I write today regarding a squirrelly thought: are the benefits of registering a hashtag trademark almost always outweighed by the consequences? In light of a recent Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“TTAB”) ruling and the Trademark Manual of Examining Procedure’s (“TMEP”) provisions, hashtag marks offer much less protection than traditional character-based marks, such that the latter are preferable in most situations.

We’ve all seen hashtag words and phrases (without spaces between the words) in social media, most commonly on Twitter–but also now on other sites, such as Facebook and Instagram. By affixing a hash symbol (#) to a word or phrase in a post, users can garner attention, join in a movement, and possibly “go viral.” Popular recent trending examples are #MeToo and #TakeAKnee. And of course, who could forget:

#selfie

Hashtags serve filtering, identifying, and promoting functions that have commercial advertising value. Thus, it is no surprise that hundreds of individuals and companies have applied for trademarks on “hashtag marks,” seeking to control the use of certain hash-preceded words and phrases. In fact, at the time of writing, there are over 1,900 such registrations. Hashtags are hip, and everyone wants one–or so they think.

In 2016, the USPTO added TMEP § 1202.18, which explains when “hashtag marks” may be registered:

A mark consisting of or containing the hash symbol (#) or the term HASHTAG is registrable as a trademark or service mark only if it functions as an identifier of the source of the applicant’s goods or services. . . . Generally, the hash symbol and the wording HASHTAG do not provide any source-indicating function because they merely facilitate categorization and searching within online social media . . . .Therefore, the addition of the term HASHTAG or the hash symbol (#) to an otherwise unregistrable mark typically will not render it registrable.

Recently, the TTAB applied this rule and other doctrines, holding that the addition of hashtags usually do nothing to make a mark distinctive. In the case, the TTAB rejected singer Will.I.Am’s application for a hashtag mark for #WILLPOWER because it was too similar to other registered marks containing”willpower,” and the hash symbol had no source-indicating distinctiveness, merely operating as a metadata tag for social media platforms.

The TTAB decision and TMEP provisions greatly narrow the registrability of hashtag marks, as well as their enforcement scope, such that it seems as if there is very little upside to applying for such a mark in most circumstances. An applicant does not need to register an otherwise-registrable mark as a hashtag mark in order to protect the mark if hashed. In such cases, a hashtag registration provides no more protection than a traditional character registration; the hash adds no additional layer of distinctiveness, just as it would not lend distinctiveness to an unregistrable word or phrase. Thus, an applicant should only apply for a hashtag mark in instances in which the non-hashed word or phrase lacks distinctiveness without the hash. If there is a case to be made for a traditional mark, the applicant should pursue that mark instead because traditional marks can be enforced more broadly.

If an applicant applies, however, only for a hashtag mark, then non-distinctiveness absent the hashtag will work to preclude the registrant from enforcing the mark in non-hashed situations. Even if the hashtag mark could be a mark on its own without the hash, the fact that the hashtag mark is either the first or only mark could result in a presumption against non-hashed distinctiveness–after all, why apply for a hashtag mark at all in such circumstances? It may also be more difficult to prove that non-hashed phrases, which in their non-hashed form are separated by spaces, infringe the hashtag mark. Imagine, for example, two competing phrases (the first example of which is a registered hashtag mark):

#lifeofabusyexecutive

Life of a Busy Executive

If the hash provides the distinctiveness for the first example (and perhaps in tandem with the lowercase and squished text), then presumably the second phrase without the hash (and with spaces) would not tread on that distinctiveness, working against a showing of consumer confusion and infringement. Of course, the holder of the hashtag mark could prevent identical use by competitors in commerce, but not similar non-hashed uses.

Emerging trademark law teaches that hashtag marks are extremely narrow–intentionally so–and as we’ve discussed before, hashtag marks are also greatly susceptible to fair use defenses. There appear to be few upsides to seeking such marks, at least without first trying for a traditional mark. So although trademark commentary as of late has focused on the trendiness of obtaining a hashtag mark, the more important question is whether it is worth doing so. In most cases, the answer will probably be “no.”

Procter & Gamble (P&G) has filed federal trademark applications to register several well-known (at least among millennials) acronyms used in text messages, including LOL (laughing out load); NBD (no big deal); WTF (what the f***); and FML (f*** my life). The applications identify cleaning products, including liquid soap, dish detergents, surface cleaners, and air fresheners. P&G’s products include brands such as Febreze air freshener, Dawn dish detergent, and Mr. Clean surface cleaner, so perhaps the applied-for marks would be used in association with those existing products. But that’s just a guess, as the applications were filed with an intent-to-use basis, meaning no specimens of use are provided yet.

Earlier this month, the USPTO issued initial Office Action refusals for all four applications, primarily involving minor clarification issues related to the identifications of the cleaning products. However, one of the applications, for FML, received a likelihood-of-confusion refusal, citing previous “FML” registrations, so we’ll see how that pans out. Additionally, two of the applications, LOL and NBD, received requests for information regarding the meaning of the acronyms. (Perhaps the Examining Attorney is not a text-savvy millennial?) Otherwise, it appears that the majority of these four applications will probably be approved for publication eventually, pending resolution of the clarifications and requests for information.

Nevertheless, even if the marks register, the decision to seek registration for these ubiquitous acronyms might seem questionable from a branding perspective, for a couple reasons. First, these acronyms are so commonly used in a variety of contexts, and have such a well-known informational meaning, that it may be difficult for the marks to become strongly recognized by consumers as distinctive source indicators, pointing to P&G and their cleaning products. Second, it is difficult to discern any logical or beneficial association between the well-known meaning of the acronyms and cleaning products. In particular, two of the acronyms have a relatively negative or vulgar meaning (WTF and FML), so it is questionable why the company would want such meanings associated with their products. Perhaps some tenuous play on the acronyms being “dirty” words that would be cleaned up by P&G’s products? Then again, I’m more a legal than marketing type, so perhaps there is a more creative strategy that I’m not thinking of — and again, it’s hard to guess how the marks will be used at the intent-to-use stage.

What do you think about P&G’s decisions to file these trademark applications for their cleaning products, from either a trademark or branding perspective?

Two businesses in Indiana are squaring off in a trademark lawsuit over the right to use the term Square Donuts for…well, square-shaped donuts.

Back in 2005, Square Donuts, a cafe with four locations in Indiana, sent a letter to Family Express (a convenience store chain with 70 locations in Indiana), demanding that Family Express cease the use of the term “Square Donuts” for the square-shaped donuts sold in its stores.

The parties wrangled for years about a potential co-existence agreement, in which Square Donuts would allow Family Express to use the “square donuts” term, but they never reached an agreement.

Later, Square Donuts filed a federal trademark application for the word mark SQUARE DONUTS for “cafe services,” claiming use since 1968, and obtained registration in 2013. (Reg. No. 4341135). The USPTO initially refused registration based on mere descriptiveness, but the refusal was overcome when Square Donuts claimed acquired distinctiveness (secondary meaning based on long and substantially exclusive use).

A couple years ago, Family Express filed a preemptive, declaratory-judgment complaint in Indiana federal court, on several grounds–including that the term “square donuts” is generic, and therefore, Square Donuts’s trademark registration No. 4341135 should be cancelled, and Family Express has the right to use that generic term. Additionally, Family Express filed last year a petition for cancellation before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB), also claiming this registration should be cancelled based on genericness. (The TTAB proceeding is currently suspended based on the federal court action.)

The genericness claim is interesting for a couple reasons. First, in both its federal court complaint, and the TTAB petition, Family Express claims the SQUARE DONUTS registration should be cancelled because the term “square donuts” has become “generic…for square-shaped donuts.” But as discussed in previous posts, the genericness inquiry must be tied to the particular goods or services for which the trademark rights are claimed and registered. Magic Wand Inc. v. RDB Inc., 19 USPQ2d 1551, 1553 (Fed. Cir. 1991). Square Donuts registered and claims rights to the mark SQUARE DONUTS for its “cafe services,” particularly as the name of its cafe.

Indeed, in the Board’s order suspending the TTAB proceeding, the Board left a footnote that was critical of Family Express’s genericness claim, and suggested it must be re-pleaded in an amended petition, if the suspension is lifted, because the genericness inquiry must be “based on the recited services in the registration at issue,” namely cafe services, not “square-shaped donuts.” However, as also correctly noted by the Board, a term can be generic for a genus of services, such as cafe services, if the relevant public understands the term to refer to a key or featured good that characterizes that genus of services (e.g., serving square-shaped donuts).  In re Cordua Rests., Inc., 118 USPQ2d 1632, 1637 (Fed. Cir. 2016).

Therefore, the appropriate genericness inquiry here — which will be more difficult for Family Express to establish — is whether the term “square donuts” has become generic for the genus of “cafe services.” In other words, do the relevant consumers refer generally to the genus of cafes (even cafes that feature square donuts), as “square donuts”?

Second, another interesting point is that Family Express still appears to be claiming trademark rights to “Square Donuts” as a brand for their donuts, while arguing the term is generic at the same time. The Family Express website, “Our Brands,” prominently features a section discussing their “Square Donuts” brand, with an introductory paragraph about “our proprietary brands.” This cuts against their argument that the term is generic, meaning it’s not a “brand,” and no party can claim exclusive, “proprietary” rights. I wonder if that website will show up as an exhibit at some point.

What do you think? Will Family Express be able to establish genericness here? Stay tuned for further updates on this dispute.

 

A couple months ago, I posted about the contentious trademark battle involving Stone Brewing Co., a craft brewery based in California, who filed a trademark infringement complaint against giant beer conglomerate MillerCoors LLC and Molson Coors Brewing Co. (“MillerCoors”). The complaint is based on the recent rebranding of the MillerCoors “Keystone” beer, which separates and places greater emphasis on the word “STONE.”  Stone Brewing alleged that this rebranded packaging infringed its registered trademark “STONE” mark for beer.

A couple days ago, MillerCoors submitted an 84-page filing for its answer and counterclaims. Typically, an answer is relatively short, consisting of concise admissions or denials. But the answer here consists of 50 pages, with numerous paragraphs providing narrative, argumentative retorts aimed at Stone Brewing. Additionally, MillerCoors alleged four counterclaims, seeking declaratory judgment: (1) of MillerCoors’ right to use STONE to advertise Keystone beer; (2) of the unenforceability of the STONE mark against MillerCoors due to laches; (3) of MillerCoors’ non-infringement; and (4) of MillerCoors’ exclusive right to use the STONE mark.

MillerCoors emphasizes that its rebranded packaging does not use or infringe Stone Brewing’s “STONE” mark; rather, the full “KEYSTONE” mark is always used, and Stone Brewing’s complaint relied on “misleading images” that “misrepresent the look of Keystone cans and outer packaging,” to unduly isolate the “STONE” portion of the mark.

Furthermore, MillerCoors alleges that it made prior use of “STONE” as a nickname for its Keystone beer in its advertising since at least 1995, whereas Stone Brewing did not begin selling its STONE-branded beer until 1996.

MillerCoors also contends that Stone Brewing should not be allowed to enforce its STONE mark against MillerCoors after unreasonably waiting eight years to file this lawsuit, following a demand letter sent by Stone Brewing back in 2010, after which Stone Brewing took no further action.

Beyond the relevant legal points, MillerCoors also offers several rhetorical attacks, in an attempt to counteract the big-beer vs. small-brewing narrative of the complaint. MillerCoors contends that Stone Brewing’s “grandiose” allegations are “misleading and ultimately meritless,” and that the lawsuit is merely a “publicity stunt and a platform to market its beer.” MillerCoors suggests that the lawsuit was really about “Stone Brewing’s struggle with its new identity as a global mega-craft beer manufacturer. Gone is the small Stone Brewing of old. Today, Stone Brewing is one of the largest breweries in the United States and its beer is sold on five continents…. What does a company that was built around its opposition to ‘Big Beer’ do when it becomes ‘Big Beer?’ Stone Brewing’s solution appears to be to file this meritless lawsuit against MillerCoors.”

That may sound harsh, but then again, this pushback shouldn’t be a surprise in light of the aggressive criticism throughout Stone Brewing’s complaint, as discussed in my previous post.

For all of MillerCoors’ attacks of Stone Brewing’s “publicity stunt,” the same label could be applied to the answer and counterclaims, which appear to focus on developing a counter-narrative and managing public perception, in light of the extensive rhetoric, some of which isn’t necessary or particularly relevant to the legal claims.

How do you think this one will turn out? With both sides so clearly invested in this lawsuit being about public relations, marketing, and/or a “publicity stunt,” I wouldn’t be surprised if this lawsuit settles without going very far, to avoid the significant risks of negative PR on both sides. Stay tuned for updates.

Last year I posted about the trademark infringement complaint by PayPal against Pandora, based on Pandora’s rebranded “P” logo that was introduced in October 2016.  See a comparison below of PayPal’s blue “PP” design mark (left) with Pandora’s blue “P” design mark (right).

Last November, the parties reached a written settlement agreement and stipulated to dismissal of the lawsuit.  There was some media coverage of the settlement, but no details of the settlement were discussed in the media nor in any comments from the parties. A spokesperson for PayPal commented only that “we have resolved this matter amicably.” Thus it appears the terms of the settlement were confidential.

Despite such confidentiality, it has seemed, at least for the past few months, that Pandora was on the winning side of the dispute, as it continued using its blue “P” logo without any changes. Nevertheless, since my post last year, I’ve kept an eye on the logo, as it’s relatively common for settlement agreements in trademark disputes to have extended “phase-out” periods, in which a party is given some time period (such as three months) to phase-out an infringing mark and switch to a rebranded mark.

Last week (roughly three months since the date of settlement), I noticed the Pandora logo on my iPhone app had suddenly changed, see below.

 

After some (very brief) searching, I could not find any announcement or mention of the new logo on Pandora’s website or blog, nor on Pandora’s Twitter feed. Nor have I found any other significant media or online discussion of the new logo, yet. This is a bit surprising in light of the extensive marketing and announcements surrounding the previous rebrand.

I believe the logo change occurred about a week ago, based on when my iPhone app updated, but I can’t be sure. Perhaps this is just a temporary or seasonal logo change for other reasons, but I can’t think of a reason why. Nor does it appear to be limited to the iPhone app–the new logo also appears in the Google Play store, on Amazon, on Pandora’s official Twitter account, and its YouTube channel.

Just a wild guess, but perhaps the written settlement agreement required Pandora to change its logo within three months, and also required both parties to remain silent and refrain from any announcements of the new logo? And just another guess, if that’s the case, perhaps Pandora requested confidentiality, and silence regarding the rebrand, to avoid any suggestion that PayPal’s claims were meritorious (i.e., that Pandora’s logo infringed or diluted PayPal’s logo), or that Pandora was on the losing end of the settlement.

What do you think? As I only searched briefly, let me know, have you found any other discussion or media coverage yet of the new logo? Also, what do you think of the new logo from a branding perspective? Not sure I like the contrasting color combinations, but I could get used to it.

A recent advertisement caught my ear because it involved financial services offered by a guy named Charles Hughes a/k/a Chuck Hughes and the catchy marketing phrase Trade Like Chuck:

It instantly reminded me of a piece I wrote in 2010 called: Exposing Two-Face Brands. One of the branding truncation examples I wrote about there noted how Charles Schwab exposed a much less formal and more personal and engaging face with the popular Talk to Chuck advertising campaign.

The folks liked it, so Susan Perera and I responded by writing a more in-depth version for Minnesota Business, providing other examples of the trend toward truncation and informality in branding — then, I wrote about Talk to Chuck in yet another version for World Trademark Review:

Apparently the Talk to Chuck campaign was quite successful too. But all good things come to an end, as the campaign was dropped in 2013, in favor of its current tagline: Own Your Tomorrow:

What I wondered was whether Charles Schwab had continued some (even modest) use of the Talk to Chuck tagline — to retain enforceable rights — or whether it simply chucked them out, since Mr. Hughes didn’t seem at all deterred with his apparent introduction of TradeLikeChuck.com in 2016.

Although there still may be valid use of Talk to Chuck that I’m unaware of, the visible signs all seem to point toward abandonment. The TalkToChuck.com domain name was originally registered back in 2005, yet today, it only redirects to the main Charles Schwab website with no visual Talk to Chuck reinforcement, so that mere redirection, shouldn’t constitute bona fide trademark use.

Perhaps even more importantly, searches for “Talk to Chuck” on the Charles Schwab website yield no results: “There are no results for ‘talk to chuck’.” And, each Talk to Chuck federal registration and application was allowed to expire or become abandoned (here, here, and here).

Why didn’t Schwab see some value in taking steps — even modest ones — to avoid abandonment of its federally-registered rights? Do you suppose Mr. Hughes has Schwab regretting that decision?

What if the web traffic to the Charles Schwab financial services site still had meaningful redirection coming from the TalktoChuck.com domain name, would that help establish lingering goodwill?

In the end, to “own your tomorrow” — from a trademark perspective — even when you’ve moved on to a new tagline, it might pay dividends to develop an intentional plan to avoid abandonment.

Otherwise you might as well roll up those rights into a round little wad of paper, and hurl them to your doggie with one of these federally-registered Chuckit! babies (here, here, and here):

Stone Brewing Co., an independent craft brewery based in California, has filed a trademark infringement complaint against MillerCoors LLC and Molson Coors Brewing Co. (collectively “MillerCoors”). The complaint is based on the recent rebranding of the MillerCoors “Keystone” beer. The rebranded packaging separates “Keystone” into two words, with the smaller word “KEY” on a separate line, above the larger word “STONE.” See the photograph below of the rebranded can (Stone Brewing’s co-founder Greg Koch is in the background, looking displeased).

See also the external packaging of the 30-packs, which further emphasize the word “STONE” on the cans:

Stone Brewing owns an incontestable federal trademark registration for STONE (typeset) for “beers and ales” (Reg. No. 2168093).  When MillerCoors rebranded last year, it appears it may have known about Stone Brewing’s registered rights in the STONE mark. MillerCoors had already filed an application to register “STONES” for beer back in 2007, but was refused registration by the Trademark Office, based on likelihood of confusion with Stone Brewing’s STONE registration. After that refusal, MillerCoors abandoned its STONES application.

Nevertheless, when MillerCoors announced its rebranded packaging for Keystone last year, it emphasized that the rebranded can “plays up the ‘Stone’ nickname” for the beer, and further noted that with this rebranding effort, “Keystone Light is grabbing 2017 by the ‘Stones.”

Stone Brewing’s complaint is aggressive and persuasive, but it also includes some playful and humorous language, along with frequent criticism of MillerCoors, including digs at the quality of its beer (or lack thereof), and its decline in recent years as one of the “Beers Americans No Longer Drink.”  Below are a few of my favorite lines (note that “Gargoyle” is a nickname/emblematic self-reference to Stone Brewing)

  • “Since 1996, the incontestable STONE® mark has represented a promise to beer lovers that each STONE® beer, brewed under the Gargoyle’s watchful eye, is devoted to craft and quality. Like all Gargoyles, it is slow to anger and seeks a respectful, live-and-let-live relationship with peers and colleagues – even those purveying beers akin to watered-down mineral spirits. But Stone and the Gargoyle cannot abide MillerCoors’s efforts to mislead beer drinkers and sully (or steal) what STONE® stands for.”
  • “The Gargoyle does not countenance such misdirection of consumers; nor does it support those who would disavow their own Colorado mountain heritage to misappropriate another’s ancestry. Stone accordingly brings this action to help usher Keystone back to the Rockies. Should Keystone not willingly return, Stone intends to seek expedited discovery in aid of a preliminary injunction”

Stone Brewing’s co-founder Greg Koch recently posted a video regarding the dispute, and MillerCoors issued the following public response:

  • “This lawsuit is a clever publicity stunt with a multi-camera, tightly-scripted video featuring Stone’s founder Greg Koch. Since Keystone’s debut in 1989, prior to the founding of Stone Brewing in 1996, our consumers have commonly used ‘Stone’ to refer to the Keystone brand, and we will let the facts speak for themselves in the legal process”

What do you think about this dispute? In my view, it’s more than a publicity stunt. The MillerCoors response about how some consumers may refer to “Stone” for Keystone beer is less relevant than the marks actually used in commerce by MillerCoors. Based on the rebranded packaging’s emphasis of “STONE,” and Stone Brewing’s incontestable registration for STONE for beer, this appears to be a relatively strong complaint. MillerCoors may be rolling a stone uphill on this one. But we’ll have to wait to see its answer and any defenses. Stay tuned for updates.

Earlier this year, I posted about a dispute between candy company Mars Inc. and a small business based in Wisconsin, selling handmade fine chocolates under the mark CocoVaa.

In March, Mars Inc. filed a federal trademark infringement complaint in the Eastern District of Virginia, asserting that its registered CocoaVia® mark (Reg. No. 4179465), for a dietary supplement powder, was being infringed by the use of the mark CocoVaa for handmade fine chocolates. Mars Inc. sued both the company CocoVaa LCC, based in Madison, Wisconsin, as well as the company’s owner, Syovata Edari.

According to Mars Inc.’s website, the CocoaVia® supplement has naturally occurring “cocoa flavanols” that promote “healthy blood flow from head to toe,” which is important for  “cardiovascular health.” The supplement is available in either capsule form, or in flavored powdered stick packs that can be mixed into drinks, such as milk or smoothies.

Ms. Edari launched a strong public stand against Mars Inc., calling this a case of “trademark bullying” in interviews in local and national media outlets. Ms. Edari noted that her fine chocolates are “distinctly different” than Mars Inc.’s dietary supplement powders, that they have different packaging, and that they appear in “different consumer spheres,” such that consumers would be unlikely to think there’s a connection between the two brands.

In June, Ms. Edari received some good news when Mars Inc.’s complaint was dismissed for lack of personal jurisdiction,  because Ms. Edari and her company do not sell any products in Virginia (where the lawsuit was filed), nor do they have sufficient contacts there related to this dispute.

However, Ms. Edari wasn’t done with this battle just yet.  She anticipated that Mars Inc. may file another trademark infringement complaint in Wisconsin, where her business, CocoVaa LLC, is based.  Therefore, Ms. Edari made a preemptive strike, by filing her own complaint in federal court in Wisconsin, and seeking a declaratory judgment of non-infringement. Just a couple weeks ago, the parties reached a settlement and filed a one-sentence stipulation for dismissal, without any information as to the terms of settlement. However, Ms. Edari stated in a recent interview that her business will continue to operate under the “CocoVaa” name, which is a big win.

Notably, in recent media coverage, both parties refused to comment about details of the settlement, which suggests a confidentiality clause. Just guessing, but based on Ms. Edari’s previous outspoken media campaign and interviews about the dispute, as discussed in my previous post, perhaps the confidentiality clause was required by Mars, Inc., which is more common when settlement terms are favorable to the opposing party.

Thus it appears that Ms. Edari’s declaratory judgment action had a successful outcome, and that this was a favorable settlement for Ms. Edari and her business. As they say, sometimes the best defense is a good offense. What do you think?

 

-Wes Anderson, Attorney

Exult, lovers of autumn and decorative gourds – the air is crisp and the leaves are changing. And, in the treasured annual tradition, this week marked the release of Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte – or PSL® as they may prefer to call it.

In the spirit of the season, I sought to see if any zealous trademark applicants had sought to claim ownership over the phrasing “PUMPKIN SPICE” or “PUMPKIN SPICE LATTE.” Sure enough, there are a couple of notable marks – PUMPKIN SPICE CAPPUCCINO (a composite mark disclaiming all of the wording) and a pending application for YOU HAD ME AT PUMPKIN SPICE chief among them.

For its part, Starbucks itself seems to recognize the descriptive (if not generic) nature of the name for its most popular drink, a crucial spark to fall sales. But, it does hold a rather curious registration for PSL. The registration identifies “dairy-based food beverages; soy-based food beverages used as a milk substitute” and “coffee and espresso beverages; beverages made with a base of coffee and/or espresso.”

For its part, the Trademark Office did issue an information request during examination, asking Starbucks to “specify whether the letters ‘PSL’ have any significance in the foods or beverages trade or industry or as applied to the goods described in the application, or if such letters represent a ‘term of art’ within applicant’s industry.” Starbucks answered honestly enough, stating in its response:

The Examining Attorney has requested whether the letters PSL have any significance in the foods or beverages trade or as applied to the goods described in the application, or if such letters represent a “term of art” within Applicant’s industry. Applicant notes that the letters PSL stand for Pumpkin Spiced [sic] Latte.

Generally speaking, acronyms that connote descriptive wording are not registrable. According to the Trademark Manual of Examining Procedure:

As a general rule, an acronym or initialism cannot be considered descriptive unless the wording it stands for is merely descriptive of the goods or services, and the acronym or initialism is readily understood by relevant purchasers to be “substantially synonymous” with the merely descriptive wording it represents.

[. . .]

A mark consisting of an abbreviation, initialism, or acronym will be considered substantially synonymous with descriptive wording if: (1) the applied-for mark is an abbreviation, initialism, or acronym for specific wording; (2) the specific wording is merely descriptive of applicant’s goods and/or services; and (3) a relevant consumer viewing the abbreviation, initialism, or acronym in connection with applicant’s goods and/or services will recognize it as an abbreviation, initialism, or acronym of the merely descriptive wording that it represents.

So here, Starbucks has made of record evidence that PSL stands for Pumpkin Spice[d] Latte. And there’s replete evidence online of Starbucks creating an association between the acronym and the descriptive wording. But what did the Trademark Office do? Nothing – it approved the application for registration. And come 2020, the registration will no longer be eligible for cancellation on grounds of mere descriptiveness.

Are there PSL lovers at the PTO? Quite possibly. We’ll have to keep our eyes out this fall to see if Starbucks finds any enforcement targets for its (arguably) descriptive acronym.

-Mark Prus, Principal, NameFlash Name Development

I sometimes get asked by prospective clients if they should change their name, and I help them evaluate if a change is necessary. But sometimes there are stubborn companies who persist in marketing a name that is not right. Overstock.com is a prime example of this behavior.

In early 1999, Dr. Patrick M. Byrne recognized the potential in liquidating excess inventory through the Internet. He started Overstock.com as a way for consumers to gain easy access to closeout merchandise. Overstock.com is a pretty good name for that business model.

In January 2011, Overstock.com acquired the O.co URL and began incorporating it into its marketing. CEO Dr. Patrick M. Byrne said, “When we first started our business in 1999, we only sold surplus inventory. We are no longer just an online liquidator. Our current offerings span from furniture and home decor to cars. We want an identity that more accurately reflects our company as it has evolved: hence ‘O.co’.”

I’ll admit I’m biased, but the strategy shift provided the prime opportunity to change their name.

However, Overstock.com doubled down and tried to leverage its name through a sexy sell with a campaign about “It’s All About The ‘O’ “(wink, wink added for emphasis). While the Overstock.com name faded into the background it was still the official name of the company.

Fast forward to today. Overstock.com continues to use the name that the CEO admitted didn’t fit six years ago. But now, instead of hiding their name embarrassment, they want to draw attention to it. Their latest campaign uses offensive “name shaming” language to point out that people also look at Overstock.com and think they only sell closeout items.

Dear Overstock.com CEO:

WILL YOU PLEASE JUST CHANGE YOUR NAME ALREADY?????

Signed,

Mark Prus
Principal @NameFlash

Overstock.com has spent years explaining their business model because they continue to use a name that does not fit it. How much further ahead would the company have been if they had just changed their name when given the right opportunity years ago?

We all get attached to things and letting go is hard. But there are times when you need to suck it up and change your name rather than continue to use a name that does not fit your current or future strategy!