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What is a Trademark?

April 23, 2016

Most people seem to have a general idea of what a trademark is. After all, you see them everywhere and you pretty much can't buy anything that doesn't have either a logo or a word on it that we recognize as trademarks. Very often you'll see that (R) symbol next to it or maybe it'll have the letters TM. 

 

But if you're interested in actually getting your own trademark it, may be helpful for you to have a deeper understanding of what a trademark really is and what its function is. 

 

Ok, so what is a trademark? Well, the broadest definition of a trademark is that it can be anything that a manufacturer or a producer puts on a product in order to tell consumers that that product is originating from a single source.  

 

Let's use an example to try to understand that a little bit better. Let's say you go into shoe store that has a bunch of shoes without any trademarks on them.  You find one pair that you really like, and in fact, you like it so much you want to buy two pairs of the same shoe.  You next happen to find another pair and that look identically the same as the first pair that you found.  However, since there's no trademark on either one of them you  can’t know whether they're actually coming from the same source, (i.e., the same producer) or if they're being made by two different companies and they just happen to look the same.  So that's the primary function that a trademark provides: it tells the consumer that the goods are coming from the same source.  

 

What can be a Trademark?

Most often, trademarks are going to be one or more words or a logo or a combination of words and logo.  But a trademark can be many different things.  It can even be a symbol or shape, and it can be also be sound or a color or even a fragrance. So long as what you're using as a trademark has the ability to tell consumers that the product that it's on is coming from a single source, it can function as a trademark.

 

Identify and Distinguish Goods

The important thing to remember is that in order for it to work as a trademark it has to clearly identify and distinguish your goods from all of your competitors goods. In other words, if consumers look at what you're trying to use as a trademark and they can't use that to distinguish your products from your competitor's products, then its not really functioning as a trademark.

 

So let's use another example going back to our hypothetical shoe store.  In this case, let’s say you come across a pair of shoes that have a label on them that says either "sports" or "leather."  You're not likely going to think to yourself that either the words "leather" or "sports" are telling you anything about the producer or the source of those goods.  You're more likely to think that the word "sports" and "leather" are somehow describing a feature or a characteristic of that shoe.  Because those words can describe products coming from numerous sources, they don’t have the ability to identify a single source.

 

On the other hand, if you see a pair of shoes and they have the word "banana" you're more likely to think that that is telling you something about the identity of the producer or the source of those shoes.  And if there's no one else who's using the word "banana" or something similar to the word "banana" on their shoes, then the word "banana" on a pair of shoes can really clearly distinguish those shoes from all the other shoes in the marketplace.

 

So that's the first and perhaps most important function of a trademark, to clearly identify and distinguished goods originating from a single source from all other competing goods in the marketplace.  

 

Quality Assurance

Another function of trademarks is that they provide quality assurance.  They do this because companies invest time and money into producing products of a certain quality and that quality becomes represented by the trademarks that they use to sell those products.  That's so much so, that in reality, quality and trademarks become virtually intertwined with each other in the perception of the consumer. When you go to buy a product, whether it's Nike shoes, Apple computers or a Toyota, you have a certain expectation with regards to the quality of that product. That's usually why you're going out there to get a product with a brand name on it because that trademark represents the quality that you, as a consumer, expect from that product.  

 

Goodwill

There's also a third function that trademarks provide. And this one really benefits manufacturers.  When you think about it, the first two functions are really there to benefit consumers by protecting consumer’s expectations. But manufacturers also benefit by using trademarks.  That’s because consumers use those trademarks as their principal means of finding the goods that the manufacturer is producing. So the trademark represents to the manufacture the best way to convey to the consumer the quality, time and money that's been invested in making the product, and in return, the manufacturer is assured that it can reap the benefits of all of those efforts by making sure that the consumer knows how to find those goods and continues to buy them.  This association of goods and quality with a producer/manufacturer becomes part of the inherent value of a trademark and we refer to that inherent value as the trademark’s “goodwill.”  In turn, goodwill becomes what producers and manufacturers try to build and create more of, in order to increase their sales and devoted consumers.

 

I hope you've enjoyed this introduction to trademarks. If you have any questions or comments, please post them below or send me an email I'll try my best to answer them quickly.

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