Ever since Bass beer secured its classic red triangle logo in 1876 as the first ever registered trade mark, businesses have appreciated the vital importance and value of protecting their brands.
Unlike a patent, which expires after a maximum of 20 years, a trade mark registration can be renewed in perpetuity – and grow in value accordingly.
But what are the pitfalls?
It isn’t enough simply to come up with a name that is memorable (think Kodak), appealing (Ben & Jerry’s), iconic (The London Eye) or perhaps with a hidden meaning (Nylon). You also need to avoid the absurd: remember PricewaterhouseCooper Consulting deciding to re-brand as Monday? No? Perhaps that’s because the howls of derision saw the name quickly dropped, and the business fall into the hands of IBM.
And it’s best to check out local linguistic niceties before you start exporting: learn from the example of Mitsubishi, which hastily dropped Pajero as a brand in Spanish-speaking markets, after it turn out to be just a little bit rude.
The primary purpose of a trade mark, from a legal standpoint, is to distinguish goods and services as originating from a particular source, and so avoid confusion among the public. Registration gives an owner a powerful legal monopoly over the use of a name for the specified goods or services in specific countries. So while there is nothing to stop any entrepreneur from formulating and launching a sweet, brown carbonated soft drink, don’t even think about naming it anything close to Coca-Cola.
Which is, of course, a rather extreme example – and yet some well-established and highly regarded businesses have sometimes taken their eyes off the ball when it comes to their trade mark rights: when Google launched its Gmail brand a few years ago, it quickly ran into difficulties in Germany, where businessman Daniel Giersch owned the registered rights to use G-mail for similar services.
Daniel and Google – rather like David and Goliath – had something of a stand-off, which eventually saw Google announce through gritted teeth in 2008: “We can't provide service under the Gmail name in Germany; we're called Google Mail here instead”.
The simple fact of the matter is this: without a secure registered trade mark, you have no safe way of promoting your business to your customers. So, as soon as you start thinking of launching a new product or service, or expanding into a new country, you need to check out the legal position.