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When consumers see shoes with the Nike™ swoosh on them, everything they know about Nike instantly comes to mind. If they recall good (or bad) past experiences they've had with Nike products, they can apply that knowledge to future buying decisions. Putting the swoosh on products allows Nike to distinguish its sportswear from similar products offered by Adidas™ and Reebok™. This product distinguishing and source designating function is a key function of trademarks. 

A trademark can be any symbol used by a business to identify its products or services. Common examples of trademarks include logos, tag lines and word marks. The more distinctive a word mark is, the wider its scope of protection will be. Accordingly, selecting a distinctive word mark is an important step toward maximizing trademark protection.

When considering the distinctiveness of word marks, words can be placed in one of five categories:

Fanciful Fanciful word marks consist of newly coined words. The words Kodak™, Xerox™, Adidas, and Reebok™ all began life as newly coined words created for use as trademarks. Newly coined words are very distinctive (and thus strong trademarks) because they have no meaning other than their trademark-related meaning.

Arbitrary An arbitrary word mark consists of a pre-existing word or group of words that are adopted for use as a trademark. For a word mark to be arbitrary, it must not describe the products or services it is used with. Examples of arbitrary word marks include: Apple™ (for computers), Blue Diamond™ (for almonds), Red Bull™ (for energy drinks), and Starbucks™ (for coffee).

Suggestive Suggestive marks hint at, but do not describe, the nature or characteristics of a product or service. A consumer viewing a suggestive word mark needs to apply some imagination or thought to mentally connect the dots between the word mark and the product. Examples of suggestive marks include: Roach Motel™ (for insect traps), London Fog™ (for raincoats) and Chicken of the Sea™ (for canned tuna). The trademark protection given to suggestive marks is stronger than that given to descriptive marks but not as strong as the protection given to arbitrary and fanciful marks.

Descriptive A word is descriptive if it refers to an ingredient, quality, characteristic, feature, or use of the relevant product or service. Descriptive words receive relatively weak trademark protection because every business providing a particular product or service has a legitimate need to use words describing that product or service. Examples of descriptive trademarks would be Bed & Breakfast Registry for lodging reservations services or Oat Nut for bread containing oats and hazelnuts.

Generic Generic words are the common nouns that the purchasing public uses when referring to a category of goods or services. Generic words receive no trademark protection at all. In fact, a word mark that began its life as a newly coined fanciful trademark can become generic if the purchasing public begins using it as a common noun. When this happens, the business using that word mark loses its exclusive right to use the mark. Examples of fanciful word marks that became generic include:  Aspirin, Zipper, Escalator, Thermos, and Trampoline.

A good trademark is an investment in your business. Be sure this process is well-thought-out. You want to protect your image as a business and the trademark can make all the difference.

About the Author

UNK's Center for Rural Research & Development

Article courtesy Allen Groenke.

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