— Aaron Keller, co-author, The Physics of Brand, co-founder Capsule.us and Columnist at Twin Cities Business magazine.

There are so many hidden dangers in the process of naming any new offering — many of which can sneak up on you. We all like to believe we’ll see the danger before it meets us squarely in the forehead like a baseball bat, but the number of horror stories would indicate otherwise.

We’ve illustrated the Jimmy’s Johnnys in past blog posts, which certainly doesn’t create a good brand image for Jimmy John’s. But, really that’s a trademark issue, not a meaning issue. The meaning issues happen because there’s existing cultural meaning around a word that really isn’t good for your brand.

Rusty Taco dealt with it by moving to R Taco — not something this writer agreed with, but it happened. If you’re wondering what meaning existed with that name, try using your imagination before you search it on a work computer.

Fairview University, in their previous partnership had a minor issue when they turned the name into an acronym and stenciled it on hospital equipment. Do it yourself by writing those two letters in your whiteboard.

Or, the classic, Federal Express before they became FedEx, because in most countries “Federal” means government and slow, very, very slow. FedEx needs to be on time and certainly not slow — seeing the hidden meaning was essential.

Now, my own personal favorite today, the brand Sheetz, which is best consumed via this link, which tells me they know the brand name is amusing. Though, it does have a gastronomic implication that likely doesn’t create a smile in your mind after eating their foot long sub sandwich.

So, how do you avoid this?

Test the meaning with your audiences and there are simple rather inexpensive ways to get a clear picture of what your brand name means in culture. Even if you’ve got an existing brand name and culture has changed around it — like Tsunami Herbicide — a test might identify a need to change or refine your brand name.

Test your meaning before you test your job security. If you run into an amusing brand name story you think needs to be told, please pass it along to AaronKeller@capsule.us.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the filing of the petition to cancel the R-Word registrations held by Pro-Football, Inc., the NFL franchise playing near the Nation’s capital.

Indian Country Today has published an interview with Suzan Shown Harjo, lead petitioner in Harjo et al v. Pro-Football, Inc., and organizer of Blackhorse et al v. Pro-Football, Inc.

Thanks to Indian Country Today and Suzan Shown Harjo for sharing this interview. Its documentation of history is so important for anyone who cares where we’ve been as a country and where we’re headed; it is valuable and timeless, powerful and compelling.

I’m so thankful to Suzan for the opportunity to play a small part in this long yet unfinished history, and here is a photo of us together on May 15, 2015, at a conference in Hinckley, Minnesota, during a celebration honoring her lifetime of advocacy for Native peoples:

Suzan’s heretofore and ongoing work is truly remarkable and a testament to who she is, even in the face of ignorant vitriol, and to how many lives she has touched and continues to touch in such a profound, generous, and meaningful way.

As I reflect on the historic petition to cancel we filed together on September 10, 1992, one thing I can’t get out of my mind is the national press conference question I answered from the Washington D.C. press corps, something like “what about the First Amendment?”

As I recall, my response was, something like, the beauty of this cause of action is that the First Amendment is not implicated because removing the federal government’s erroneous approval of the racial slur doesn’t compel the team to change the name, having said that, it is of course our hope that the team does the right thing and pick another name.

Who could have guessed it would take nearly a quarter century to reverse prior court of appeals precedent (McGinley) saying Section 2(a) did not violate Free Speech or the First Amendment, and then to have the Supreme Court agree that refusing federal registration of disparaging matter under Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act is viewpoint discrimination and a violation of Free Speech.

Thankfully much awareness has been raised and good has been done over the past quarter century, while the NFL and Washington franchise double down together on their joint investment to retain exclusive rights in a racial slur.

Hopefully with increased awareness raised and the movement and pressure continuing, we won’t have to wait another quarter century for justice and clearer thinking on this issue by the NFL, FEDEX, and other NFL sponsors, if not Daniel Snyder himself.

As I reflect back a quarter century ago, to the day, it was never about banning the team’s Freedom of Speech, it was about removing the federal government’s approval of a racial slur as a federally-registered trademark, and providing team ownership with a financial incentive to reconsider their choice to ignore the obvious, as Suzan has noted:

“We liked the approach of a pocketbook incentive case that did not force a name-change, but counted on the greed of the team owner to drop the name if exclusive federal trademarks were cancelled.”

“The pocketbook approach put things squarely where pro sports differed from educational sports: money. In most name and symbol changes made in educational sports, we had a way of discussing the issues and solutions, because there almost always were educators and officials who genuinely cared about the well-being of the students. In pro sports, even the health and safety issues seemed focused on liability and not on human beings, and some paid fans seemed physically provocative, while others seemed orchestrated online to attack and defame those of us who were challenging the NFL franchise in orderly legal forums.”

“Another reason I liked the pocketbook approach was that it didn’t impede anyone’s free speech. I was at WBAI-FM  in 1973, when the “seven dirty words” case started down the road to the Supreme Court’s 1978 ruling against free speech. The free speech flagship station of the Pacifica network, WBAI aired a cut from Comedian George Carlin’s “Class Clown” album and a listener complained to the Federal Communications Commission that his young son was wrongly exposed to dirty words. George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” was based on an earlier routine by Comedian Lenny Bruce that was an excuse for one of his many arrests and jailings for using dirty words. The upshot of FCC v. Pacifica Foundation was that the federal government can restrict free speech in certain instances, the opposite of the Court’s 2017 ruling in The Slants case against the PTO, which rendered part of the trademark law unconstitutional as violative of the First Amendment. We never thought we were violating the NFL’s freedom of expression by using the same section of the trademark law.”

Ironically, as team owner Daniel Synder freely and proudly admits, the team’s ability and commitment to continue using the name will never change, even in the face of the mountain of evidence demonstrating its offensiveness and meaning as a racial slur, and even in the face of losing on the merits three times (twice at the TTAB, once at the E.D. Va.), or more.

So much for the Supreme Court’s concern that Section 2(a) actually chills Freedom of Speech, because according to Snyder, even after losing on the merits he has reaffirmed: “We will never change the name of the team,” “It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”

So, in the end, it is about the money, and the NFL clearly has had sufficient funds to defend the indefensible for a quarter century now, so isn’t it time FEDEX and other NFL sponsors step up and get on the right side of this issue, with their money? Let’s all follow the money.

Here’s to you Suzan, be well, Aho.

I’m not talking about brands that say one thing and do another. I’m not talking about brands that don’t live up to their promise. I’m literally talking about brands with two faces. One face may be confident, complicated, technical, professional, and/or formal. Let’s call him, Stephen. The other face might be friendly, simple, approachable, engaging, and/or informal — perhaps, identified by a nickname or some other form of truncation. Meet Steve.

A couple of months ago I blogged about the clear trend toward truncation and informality in branding (Coca-Cola and Coke, Gatorade and G, Bubblicious and B, Stride and SFederal Express and Fedex, Radio Shack and The Shack, Pizza Hut and The Hut, Vanderbilt and Vandy, Villanova and Nova), with at least one exception being General Motors, ahem, GM and its apparent interest in bucking that trend by moving away from the less formal two-syllable Chevy name and brand in favor of the more formal three-syllable Chevrolet name and brand.

Similarly, McDonalds’ current billboard ad campaign confirms that the fast food giant prefers formality, i.e., Joseph over Joe, at least when it comes to selling its premium roast coffee in competition with the likes of Starbucks and Caribou Coffee:

 

And, while I can’t specifically recall the name of the advertiser and educational institution, moving in a similar direction, I do recall a recent billboard ad campaign in the Twin Cities metro area, where the college or university in question seemed to suggest that an entering student named Kate will acquire the tools to transform herself into Katherine upon graduation. So, I guess that’s an improvement and worth the investment of time and money?

Meanwhile, Charles Schwab is now a.k.a Chuck:

Just wondering, had Charles Schwab started business as Chuck Schwab, would the financial giant be what it is today? Seems to me, at least in the financial services sector, starting formal and moving informal is an easier branding path than traveling in the opposite direction.

As I recall, and on a somewhat related note, earlier this year, Guest Blogger Anthony Shore of Operative Words, wrote about the naming pendulum swinging away from arbitrary names and back toward brand names having an honest, straightforward, and even humble quality, in Truth is Stronger Than Fiction. Might those principles be at work here too?

In the end, I suppose that brands, like people, may exhibit either or both faces, formal and informal, depending on their surroundings and the circumstances they encounter at any given point in time. It seems to me, they are not necessarily mutually exclusive faces, as evidenced by the fact that nearly all of the branding truncation examples above did not completely replace the more formal brand name from use, they simply introduced a fresh new second face of the brand. 

My guess, as a trademark type, is that the less formal face of a brand creates an opportunity for creating a stronger emotional connection with consumers, but I’m happy to be corrected by someone who thinks about such things for a living.

–Dan Kelly, Attorney

Here’s a trademark that has always amused me:

You can find it on a page of FedEx’s website, and it is on many FedEx boxes and trucks.  As Steve has pointed out before, and as probably everybody older than the age of reason knows, FedEx is short for Federal Express, so this mark in one sense means “Federal Express Express.”  (FEDERAL EXPRESS is still itself a registered trademark, although with EXPRESS disclaimed, and FEDEX is also registered.)

At the same time, the company does not seem to be embarrassed to use the FEDEX EXPRESS mark, and many of us probably see it regularly and don’t notice the apparent redundancy, which is a testament to the fact that the trademark FEDEX is inherently distinctive.  To the strict literalist, FedEx may mean only “Federal Express,” but in commerce, FEDEX is a unique identifier distinguishing a unique source of services–and there is the genius in its branding strategy, albeit bolstered by long-standing use.  FEDEX is now a house mark used in a bewildering number of composite trademarks:

I could go on.  FedEx is even on the first person bandwagon with its MY FEDEX page.  I state the obvious:  FedEx is strong, and Federal Express is a branding champion–strong enough to be redundant without consequence.

P.S.  But even the champions can’t always keep up with the domainers–just see where fedexpress.com takes you…

My trademark antennas automatically rise when I hear about a brand owner announcing plans to trade in one brand for another, as GM recently and surprisingly did with the Chevy nickname (brand and trademark), in favor of the longer and more formal Chevrolet brand name (and trademark). Hat tip to Nils Montan of IPAlly, for spotting GM’s Chevy veering toward the levee.

These sorts of announcements can be hazardous because, in my experience, many brand owners fail to appreciate that trademark rights are immediately abandoned when use is stopped with no intention to resume use. Moreover, many marketers fail to appreciate that token use won’t save trademark rights from becoming abandoned.

Putting aside the somewhat complicated issue of "lingering goodwill," once abandonment has occurred, the mark enters the public domain, free for anyone else to adopt, use, and own. For more on trademark abandonment, you might want to check out my prior post entitled Dialing in on Trademark Abandonment.

Having said all that, GM, trademark types, and others can rest easy, with the Chevy "pink slip" debacle, since GM had not even come close to ceasing use of the Chevy trademark when it announced the plan for a brand name overhaul. In addition, it appears that the planned brand name overhaul has now been recalled. Fortunately for GM, an expressed intention to stop using a brand only triggers abandonment once all bona fide use has ceased. GM is so deeply invested in use of the Chevy brand and trademark, it is hard to imagine how long it might take to cease all use, even if it really tried.

So, why the announcement? What’s the point? Why even toy with voluntarily discarding such valuable intellectual property rights? Was it a test to see if anyone cared? If not, why favor three syllables over two anyway?

In a world where there is a clear trend toward truncation and informality (Coca-Cola and Coke, Gatorade and G, Bubblicious and B, Stride and SFederal Express and Fedex, Radio Shack and The Shack, Pizza Hut and The Hut, Vanderbilt and Vandy, Villanova and Nova), one must wonder whether "the good ‘ole boys were drinkin whiskey and rye," when they issued this ill-conceived memo to "Chevy" employees:

Chevrolet Team,

We wanted to write you a quick note requesting your support of our Chevrolet Brand. When you look at the most recognized brands throughout the world, such as Coke or Apple for instance, one of the things they all focus on is the consistency of their branding. Why is this consistency so important? The more consistent a brand becomes, the more prominent and recognizable it is with the consumer. This is a big opportunity for us
moving forward.

As you know, we are investing substantially to improve the consistency of our retail facilities through the EBE process. Aside from the facilities aspect of our branding, there are many other ways in which we can demonstrate this consistency. One way to achieve this is with the use of Chevrolet vs. Chevy. We’d ask that whether you’re talking to a dealer, reviewing dealer advertising or speaking with friends and family, that you communicate our brand as Chevrolet moving forward.

We have a proud heritage behind us and a fantastic future ahead of us … speaking to the success of this brand in one consistent manner will ensure Chevrolet becomes even more prominent and recognizable than it already is.

Thank you for your support of this effort!

Alan and Jim

P.S. We put a plastic “Chevy” can down the hall that will accept a quarter every time someone uses “Chevy” rather than Chevrolet! We’ll use the money for a team building activity.

Putting aside the hailstorm of criticism that already has pummeled the memo, to me, brand consistency means GM always spells the Chevrolet brand name the same way, not alternating, for example with this mispelling: Chevrolay. In addition, it means, GM always spells the Chevy brand name the same way, not alternating, for example with these mispellings: Shevy or Chevee. It doesn’t mean a choice is required between Chevrolet and Chevy, they are not mutually exclusive brand names, both can live together, in fact, they can and do complement one another, in my humble opinion, as a multiple Chevy owner and trademark type.

So, while GM’s CHEVY trademark registrations covering goods in Int’l Classes 16, 25, and 28, and the CHEVY TRUCKS registrations covering goods in Int’l Classes 1420, 21, 25, appear undamaged by the memo debacle, what about GM’s intent-to-use trademark application for the CHEVY mark covering goods in Int’l Classes 7, 8, and 9, wherein an extension of time to file a Statement of Use was filed on June 7, 2010, just a few days before the Chevy memo published? Let’s just say that if there was no bona fide intent to use the CHEVY mark on the goods listed in the extension request on June 7, this application and any resulting registration, is vulnerable to attack, even if use on other goods has not ceased.

Briefly back to the reason for the memo, perhaps GM was really concerned about Chevy Chase Bank truncating to Chevy, and diluting GM’s Chevy rights, or perhaps, conflicting with GM plans to open a Chevy bank, since Chase, the other possible truncation of Chevy Chase Bank, is already taken. Who knows?

More seriously, do you buy GM’s international explanation for the memo?