Kelly Borth: How a trademark can build product differentiation

Kelly Borth, CEO and chief strategy officer, Greencrest

Kelly Borth, CEO and chief strategy officer, Greencrest

Trademarks (™ or ®), trade names (Band-Aid or Kleenex), service marks (SM) and the like can be valuable brand assets of an organization or its CEO for that matter. They are not unlike patents that protect an inventor from someone duplicating an innovative process or product. The difference is that although you have to file post registration documentation at specified periods of time, trademarks do not have a limited right of use.

And like patents, the ownership of a trademark, trade name or service mark, as long as it is registered, can be assigned to anyone or anything: the person who created it, the shareholders or the company who markets the products and/or services.

So what defines a trademark?

By definition, trademarks, trade names or service marks are interchangeable terms and provide market differentiation, define proprietary processes, brand products and define ownership. The definition found at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, www.uspto.gov/faq/trademarks.jsp, states: “A trademark is a work, phrase, symbol or design, or a combination thereof that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of another.”

An attorney who specializes in trademark law can best guide you on securing a trademark or you can go to the aforementioned website and manage the registration process yourself. The good news is it as long as there are not any complications, the process generally takes two years or less.

My focus on the importance of writing on this subject really promotes the marketing side of why using trademarks can provide a strong competitive advantage, lead to market differentiation and become an extremely valuable asset. The power of a name, phrase or company mark can be a game changer for some companies.

Using trademarks as a smart marketing strategy

Not unlike the days of sticking a flag in the ground to lay claim to a tract of land, using trademarks, trade names and/or service marks lays claim to company names, product and service names, positioning taglines, characters and artwork and more.

A good example of this would be McDonald’s. Try using a “Mc” in front of anything and see what happens. As consumers, when we hear something with the prefix “Mc,” we automatically connect with McDonald’s because of the way the company has branded its products.

What would happen if McDonald’s had not claimed that as is distinguishable mark? An example of a phrase, “It’s The Real Thing” was claimed by Coke, whose product, wave symbol and company name, Coca-Cola, are all registered trademarks. Laying claim protects the advertising investment these companies are putting into building name recognition and product differentiation.

What’s involved in making a claim?

So how does this apply to your company? You can benefit in very much in the same way.  Take an inventory of your marketing assets. What is trademarked? What should be trademarked? Do you have product and service names for what you offer the marketplace? If you do, how could that change your market position and brand preference? Do you have a logo mark? What about brand-defining graphics? All you need to do to make a claim is add a “™” or “SM.”

If you decide to complete the paperwork, pay the fee and register the trademark with the USPTO. Once approved, you can (and should) use the ® or registered symbol. Not using the symbols associated with evidence of claim of your trademarks can put them at risk.

Trademarks have hard asset value

I find that this point is best expressed by John Stuart, former CEO of Quaker Oats: “If this business were split up, I would give you the land and the bricks and mortar, and I would take the brands and trademarks, and I would fare better than you.”

Trademarks are marketing assets, and those assets can be owned by either you or by your company.

A smart transition strategy for business owners shared in a Vistage meeting by presenter Patrick Ungashick, author of “Dance in the End Zone,” suggested taking your company name and intellectual property and assigning them to a separate LLC. And since ownership of registered marks is transferable, that’s one smart business idea.

Kelly Borth is CEO and chief strategy officer for Greencrest, a 21-year-old brand development, strategic marketing and digital media firm that turns market players into market leaders. Borth has received numerous honors for her business and community leadership. She serves on several local advisory boards and is one of 25 certified brand strategists in the United States. Reach her at (614) 885-7921 or [email protected], or for more information, visit www.greencrest.com.