Who is responsible for this billboard ad? Is it a Google advertisement? Verizon? Motorola? Droid?

Whatever the answer, it helps make the point visually that trademarks require protection beyond mere confusion as to source; basically, the same point we made a while back (in response to Seth Godin’s trademark position and then during a friendly sparring match with Ron Coleman), as we discussed

Losing a trademark challenge is bad news, right? It’s costly, it’s embarrassing, and it can damage a brand’s reputation.

And yet in one well-known instance, losing a trademark challenge didn’t hurt a brand at all. In fact, it ensured the brand’s immortality.

The product name I’m thinking of existed for just three years in the 1990s before the death-dealing trademark challenge. The company name survived in slightly altered form; the product name was replaced by a series of successor names.

Now, more than eleven years after that legal defeat, the original product name is still used, erroneously but ubiquitously, to describe an entire class of products—products that themselves exist mostly as fading memories.

What’s the product name?

I’ll give you one more hint: it’s a technology brand.

Answer after the jump.


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"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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