In this the second installment of our ongoing series about intellectual property, Jonathan Gelchinsky, a lawyer who heads the trademark practice at Pierce Atwood LLP in Portland, ME, and Boston, MA (www.pierceatwood.com), and Rob Wallace, managing partner of brand consulting firm Best of Breed Branding (www.bestofbreedbranding.com) who also served as managing partner of brand identity strategy and design firm Wallace Church, for nearly three decades, discuss the balancing act between managing a brand’s message as it evolves over time, while avoiding the abandonment of trademark rights.
(The first article in this series discussed some of the inherent tensions between trademark law and branding best practices, and provided insights on how to balance these tensions in order to develop and maintain a successful brand identity. You can read the first installment in the April 2016 issue of Package Design or at www.packagedesignmag.com/intellectual-property-pt1)
Brands must adapt or die
A brand is a story. To remain relevant in our rapid pace of change, brand stories often need to evolve. And as the primary symbol of your brand story, your brand identity also needs to evolve to signal and communicate this new story.
“Brands must be concurrently ever-changing and yet consistent,” Wallace says. “They must be agile and at the same time authentic. They must adapt to change and be honest and true to their mission, or they will die. Even heritage brands (those that rely on their well-known identities and logos) can and do often evolve, as long as they retain their recognition equities, meaning that consumers still immediately associate the new logo or brand identity with that brand and that brand only.”
Modifying your trademark can result in abandonment
Although modernizing a brand may be essential to keeping it fresh, relevant, and ultimately, successful, doing so can actually have negative consequences from a trademark perspective.
Gelchinsky explains, “Trademark owners are generally advised to be consistent in their usage of their marks when they incorporate design components or stylized lettering, because making changes to a mark could result in the abandonment of rights in the original version of the mark. This can lead to the loss of priority and ultimately significant trouble for the trademark owner.
“However, trademark law also recognizes that mark owners can make certain limited changes to their marks, such as to modernize them, while retaining the rights in the earlier version and ‘tacking’ it onto the rights in the new version,” he adds. “This is permitted when the two marks are legally equivalent because they create the same continuing commercial impression when viewed through the eyes of consumers.”
A good example of successful modernization of a brand is the Morton’s Salt logo, which changed six times over the course of 100 years, but at all times retained the same basic concept of a girl holding an umbrella in the rain with a container of salt under her arm that is spilling freely onto the ground.
Both Gelchinsky and Wallace agree that the key to modernizing a trademark and retaining the earlier rights is to ensure that the new mark carries enough of the distinctive aspects of the prior version that consumers will view the new mark as essentially the same as the original. Making material changes to the mark, on the other hand, may result in problems from a trademark perspective.
Where Changes Become the Brand
Some brand owners have turned the concept further on its head, by frequently modifying the way their logos and/or identities are presented according to a particular theme. These so-called “fluid” marks are attractive to brand owners because they can result in a much higher level of consumer engagement. Gelchinsky suggests, “A good example of this is Absolut Vodka’s advertising in which it depicts the distinctive shape of its iconic vodka bottle in different environments together with a slogan that combines its ABSOLUT mark with another word that reflects the theme of the ad.” Wallace adds, “The Absolut identity has two meaningful components. It can maintain its logo and trademark while leveraging its primary brand mnemonic, the bottle shape. This is a great balance of evolving to remain relevant while remaining true to the brand essence.”
Google also does this with its famous Google “Doodles,” which are often animated graphic reinterpretations of its standard logo customized to commemorate certain holidays, anniversaries, and the lives of famous artists, pioneers and scientists.
Wallace suggests that they are able to do this because the doodles change so frequently and combine a balance of clearly readable evolutions with significantly revolutionary interpretations where the iconic letter shapes are simply evoked, such as the “Wallace and Grommit” logo.
Gelchinsky further observes that “the changing nature of Google’s and Absolut’s depictions of their respective logos from day to day or from advertisement to advertisement has in essence itself become a brand of each of these two companies. And because the variations always contain or reflect the primary distinctive elements of the original logos, consumers perceive the ever-changing designs as being synonymous with their originals, resulting in the preservation of trademark rights.”
The Balancing Act: Evolving while Protecting
“Next generation brand identities greatly benefit from incorporating a number of iconic, ownable and legally protectable components, such as a distinctive logo (Google), shape (Absolut), icon (Pepsi), illustration (Morton’s), color (Caterpillar yellow), and other brand mnemonics,” Wallace concludes. “This allows the brand owner to evolve one element while retaining another—creating that balance of constant change and relevant authenticity. This strategy allows for brand evolution while protecting its trademark and legal rights.”
Gelchinsky adds, “Creating a well-recognized and meaningful identity is one of a brand’s most valuable assets. Be mindful of protecting that asset. Do your homework. Be vigilant. Solicit design and legal partners who have proven their expertise in this area. Take appropriate steps to stop those who try to co-opt protectable elements of your trademark as their own. If you have proof that consumers confuse other brands as being the same as yours or other products as coming from the same source as yours, you may have a basis to file suit and protect your brand.”