Size and prominence of wording on business signs, product labels and hangtags will often emphasize brand signals. Yet, sometimes decisions are made to scream generic names instead.

Never having seen the above shown wacky fresh fruit until recently, my assumption was that Buddha’s Hand represented a clever brand name for a certain type of citron fruit. Nope, generic.

The source-indicating information on the above shown Buddha’s Hand hangtag — the trademark — is barely legible, so I’ll help readers out: Ripe to You represents the above shown brand name.

So, what are the best practices when it comes to marketing commodities over brands and vice versa? The Branding Strategy Insider had an informative take on this topic just yesterday, here.

From my perspective, since brands manifest reputation, relationships and experiences, there must be accountability, and sometimes apologies are needed. Commodities, nope, not so much.

I’m thinking that while Ripe to You apparently is working to create market demand and interest in the unusual Buddha’s Hand fruit, more emphasis on the fruit’s generic name may take priority.

It also stands to reason that as Buddha’s Hand citron fruit becomes as understood as cherry tomatoes, tangelos, and bananas, the thing will speak for itself, and the brand will be paramount.

It’s also important to remember that when work is needed to create demand for a new category of products, attention on a memorable generic name can be as important as the brand name.

Otherwise, a brand owner launching a new category might find itself forever working to avoid the slippery slope of genericide, can you say, Rollerblade, Velcro, Band-Aid, and Peppadew?

Thankfully for Ripe to You, the clever and memorable Budda’s Hand generic name was handed to it on a silver platter, leaving the field wide open to focus on and emphasize its brand name.

I’d love to hear more insights from our extraordinary marketers and designers about when and how to balance the marketing of commodities/brands — when do you lead with Buddha’s Hand?

Common sense probably dictates that if you take the time and effort to create, build, and position signage to help sell what it is you’re selling, the sign should be visible, right?

Especially in these tough times, when you’re selling real estate, and this is the view from the road:

Then again, maybe not, especially if you’ve adopted a business name for ironic purposes (see below for a view from under the robust weeping willow tree):

This is a good reminder of how important it is to live up to your name and what it communicates.

Once again, when nature obscures business signs, or critical portions of them, unintended consequences can result, remember Red Cross Pharmacy?

The words we choose to use in commercial signage, advertising, and marketing materials mean something. That’s why we use them, to communicate a fact, an opinion, or perhaps some other message.

The use of certain words, can carry implied meanings too, some intended, and perhaps some unintended.

For example, yesterday Seth Godin wrote this about the power of the word "yet":

"Yet implies inevitability."

Yet, is a powerful term because it assumes something is coming, could be good, could be bad.

On a somewhat related note, I’ll have to admit I have a built-in set of assumptions when I see the all-too-frequent signage touting the "New Ownership" or "New Management" of a business:

Without some explanation, these kinds of signs seem to beg the questions, "Why are you telling me this?" and "Why should I care?" Be careful with this, because consumers will fill in the blanks, and they may not give you the benefit of the doubt.

Without context or prior experience with the business, the sign may imply there was something so wrong with the prior ownership or management, it is important for the new owner or manager to set the record straight. That being the case, having no experience with the prior owner/manager, there is no baseline to know how bad it was, leaving the inexperienced to wonder what better might even mean, so I’m not sure that is a great form of introduction to new and potential consumers.

For those who do have context and some prior experience with the past owner/manager, and they had no issues with the place, I’m not sure this is a welcome sign either? For example, when loyal customers learn about new owners or managers, it is not atypical for skepticism and fear to set in.

Last, for those who do have context or some prior experience with the past owner/manager, and they were turned off and haven’t been back, I suppose this kind of signage might persuade those to give the place another try before writing it off, but even so, isn’t there a more personal, direct, and compelling way to provide this kind of information?

In the end, with so many possible mixed messages that can be implied from this sort of abrupt communication, why do you suppose these business signs are so common?

Sorry, I couldn’t resist snapping this photo tonight at the local Sears appliance store:

Could Sears be going green and saving some electricity?

Could Sears be suggesting it is ready to carefully listen to your requests and/or complaints?

Or, has Sears found a creative way to promote its sale of Ultimate Ears earphones in the dark?

More seriously, this is a pretty innocuous result from some burned out bulbs, would your brand be this lucky?

By the way, is this one of the risks naming consultants consider when developing brand names?

Guys and gals on the street waiving orange flags aren’t the only parking lot lures in Twins Territory:

We’ve talked before about how some of those doing business or advertising in close proximity to Minneapolis’ brand new Target Field — home to the Minnesota Twins — appear to see advantage in using the Twins name (and now logo, and/or trade dress) in their signage and advertising.

We’ve talked about how this use, and I would add, association, appears designed to capitalize on the enormous goodwill represented and enjoyed by the Twins brand. Can you say, free ride?

We’ve also talked about whether such brand bait may or may not constitute nominative fair use of a trademark. 

In preparation for (hopeful and long-lasting) post-season play for the Minnesota Twins, I thought it might make sense to share a collection of parking lot sign photos I snapped just prior to a recent home game, within about a ten block radius of Target Field, illustrating a number of points:

  1. There is a lot of parking lot competition on game days;
  2. There is a variety of types of signage in use to lure drivers heading to the game;
  3. As one might expect, the closer one gets to Target Field the more it costs; and
  4. As one may or may not expect — or even notice — many of the parking lots furthest from Target Field (yet within walking distance) appear to be the most loaded with Twins brand name references or other Twins branding indicia, i.e., trade dress.

It seems to me that those who operate surface lots or ramps furthest from (but still walking distance to) Target Field seem to appreciate that they may need a little something extra (besides lower cost) to make the case for their parking lot or ramp. Looking at the wide variety of signs in this collage of parking signs, I suspect all would agree that the "Twins Parking EZ IN EZ OUT" signs with the Twins’ red/white/blue TC logo must require permission (i.e., a license) from the Minnesota Twins. These are clearly the most blatant (or, perhaps, authorized) uses.

But, what about the other signs that employ less brand indicia, either the Twins brand name in simple type, or perhaps the Twins underlying trade dress or color scheme without using the brand name? Are drivers likely to be confused about an association with the team by these uses? Are drivers likely to be deceived into thinking they are closer to Target Field than they are, especially for those coming from out of town? Here is how the Twins see the parking options for home games.

Does the fact that some of the closest parking ramps to Target Field employ no Twins brand bait help prove the point that convenient parking to attend a Twins baseball game is "readily identifiable" without the need for any Twins branding references?

And, how do you come down on the question of nominative fair use when the brand is reflected in cyberspace and in domain names, for example, www.twinsparking.net?

You may recall, Dan asked a similar question a couple of weeks ago, in Nominative Fair use of Trademarks in Domain Names.

–Dan Kelly, Attorney

Which of these two signs (generally speaking, not these specific signs) do you think has sold more beer?

or

It stands to reason that COLD BEER signs have probably moved more product than BUDWEISER signs in the history of time, but, as with all things, context is important.

Merge the above train of thought with something else I’ve blogged about repeatedly:  the value of generic domain names.  While it may be true as a general proposition that generic domain names can be extraordinarily valuable, I doubt that coldbeer.com would be efficient in selling or promoting beer, principally because cold beer is a fleeting thing, and a point-of-purchase “COLD BEER” sign has an influence on a ready purchaser in a way that it simply cannot have on the average web surfer, no matter how thirsty.

Toys.com and cars.com are widely regarded as “category killer” generic domain names, and they are used, respectively, to sell toys and cars.  Coldbeer.com is probably not a category killer for beer, but it just might be for something else, like beer refrigerators.  The key to a category-killing generic domain name is making sure that it gets used in the correct category.

As promised, here are some additional thoughts (beyond the very frank and practical non-legal advice already shared by Jason Voiovich) about Lion’s Tap’s trademark infringement case against McDonald’s over the "Who’s Your Patty?" slogan.

Here’s the multi-million dollar question: What did McDonald’s know and when did they know it? Those are questions likely to get a lot of attention in this case.

Could McDonald’s have known about Lion’s Tap’s prior use of the "Who’s Your Patty?" tagline from a drive by the single restaurant location? Not according to the exterior signage shown above.

Could McDonald’s have known about Lion’s Tap’s prior use of the "Who’s Your Patty?" tagline by checking for state or federal trademark registrations? No, Lion’s Tap didn’t register in Minnesota or attempt to federally-register the tagline until a week before filing suit, well after McDonald’s had launched its "Who’s Your Patty?" campaign.

Could McDonald’s have known about Lion’s Tap’s prior use of the "Who’s Your Patty?" tagline by conducting appropriate internet searches? Recognizing that most comprehensive trademark searches will examine the internet, here is where it might get interesting.

Just for you, I did a little poking around, and despite the fact that the current Lion’s Tap website prominently displays the "Who’s Your Patty?" tagline, The Wayback Machine (having archived updated content on Lion’s Tap’s website for these dates: November 5, 2005, December 27, 2005, June 26, 2006, January 26, 2007, January 27, 2007, December 1, 2007, and February 1, 2008), does not appear to show or document any use of the "Who’s Your Patty?" tagline as late as February 1, 2008, the last time the site apparently was crawled by The Wayback Machine. Interestingly, those archived pages show other Lion’s Tap taglines in use, such as: "Any Fresher and it Might Get Slapped," "Sponsoring the Napkin Industry Since 1977," "Yes, They Really Do Exist. Come See One for Yourself," and "Lions and Burgers and Fries, Oh My! "

So, where was the "Who’s Your Patty?" tagline being used by Lion’s Tap prior to McDonald’s adoption and use of the "Who’s Your Patty?" slogan? Was it being used in a way that McDonald’s could have found it, using reasonable precaution and diligence?

You might be interested to know that my most recent visit to the Tap — after the complaint was filed — revealed surprisingly minimal use of the "Who’s Your Patty? tagline within the restaurant interior (and none on the exterior of the restaurant). It wasn’t on wall-board menus or the on-table menus, nor on any interior signage, at least that I saw. It did appear on one wall-mounted t-shirt with a price tag on it, and one of the servers was wearing a t-shirt bearing the "Who’s Your Patty?" tagline.

Let’s not forget that Lion’s Tap is also claiming a "famous" mark in the "Who’s Your Patty?" tagline, at least "famous" in Minnesota. What do you think, does this amount of use qualify for fame?

Stay tuned, as we continue to follow this very interesting case.

As a tangentially-related side note, ironically, Patty Wood, a real estate agent from Deer Park, Texas, appears to have beaten both Lion’s Tap and McDonald’s to the punch in registering the internet domain whosyourpatty.com.

UPDATE: Here.

Hopefully you enjoy riddles. It is late Sunday afternoon, 4:30 pm to be exact. Too early for valet parking at Fogo de Chao, a wonderful Brazilian steakhouse, so you drive two blocks and enter a parking lot with the following sign:

You had a very nice dinner and now you’re ready to leave the parking lot at 6:15 pm. Based on the above sign (and contract, by the way), how much do you owe the parking attendant? Instead of humming the Jeopardy thinking music theme song, might I suggest you consider humming the 1970 Five Man Electrical Band tune “Signs” during your calculation. And for any ’70s challenged folk, I’ll prime the pump for you: “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign, blocking out the scenery, breaking my mind, do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?”

Continue Reading Are Your Business Signs and Brand on the Same Page?