As Steve blogged earlier this week, we’ve had a lot of “zero” on the mind lately—marks related to the word and numeral. It got me thinking about the letter ‘O,’ especially since it has been in recent trademark news.

If you missed it, The Ohio State University and Oklahoma State University are now dueling it out at the USPTO over Oklahoma’s trademark application related to the block ‘O.’ Specifically, Oklahoma is attempting to register a mark of “a drum major marching while leaning back with head tilted back”:

According to Oklahoma, it has been using the singular block ‘O’ since 2001, most notably on the jersey of its band’s drum major (but also on sports memorabelia):

But in an opposition to the mark, Ohio says it has been using the same letter since as early as 1898, and it’s current main athletics logo includes the block ‘O’ in the background:

According to Ohio, Oklahoma’s use of the leaning and tilted ‘O’ is likely to cause confusion. I wonder if any other O-state institutions will weigh in—looking at you, Oregon.

On the one hand, the block styling of the Oklahoma ‘O’ could cause consumers to accidentally purchase sports gear from the wrong institution. On the other hand, the letter ‘O’ is such a fundamental unit of the English language that it’s hard to argue just one institution should be entitled to its exclusive use—even if it’s only in the college sports context. And Oklahoma is only seeking registration of a mark which uses ‘O’ in a minor fashion. However, Oklahoma’s marching ‘O’ mark could run into issues related to the requirement that the mark be used in commerce. After all, it’s a mark representing the band major, who wears an ‘O.’ How does Oklahoma otherwise use the mark or plan to use it commerce?

It turns out that the letter ‘O’ is not widely used as a mark on its own. There are some recognizable uses, though. Perhaps the most distinctive use of the letter ‘O’ is the Oprah Magazine:

In 2001, a German magazine also named ‘O’ sued Oprah’s ‘O’ magazine, but the suit appears to have gone nowhere, and Oprah’s ‘O’ lives on.

The only other major ‘O’ competitor appears to be Cirque du Soleil:

Maybe there’s some potential for confusion between the Oklahoma drum major and the high-flying circus performers. Though, I’m guessing the audiences for both don’t substantially overlap.

I think the few recognizable instances of ‘O’ marks can be explained by the overall minor distinctiveness a single letter can generate when used in connection with a brand. This is the up-hill battle both Ohio and Oklahoma will face in arguing their sides of the trademark dispute. Stronger letter marks are paired with other words, such as O Magazine and O Cirque du Soleil. Another example comes to mind: Toys ‘R Us (also in the news lately).

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.