What’s in a Name?

by Katie Hayward
February 27, 2018 • 3 minute read

Cooperatives, seed brands, apps, companies—you name it, we’ve named it. It’s the sort of assignment that gets creative teams giddy with excitement. Naming things is one of the greatest jobs in all of marketing. But all fun put aside, it’s also a challenge.

What’s in a name? A lot! What does the new name mean for a brand? What does it represent? How will the public perceive it? And the real big questions—is it already taken and can it even be trademarked?

Take it from a writer who has been through this process a time or two: most obvious names are taken. In fact, I’d say eight out of ten names I come up with during the creative process are shot down with a simple Google search. Even if I made up the word! And, even if nothing comes up on Google, it still might be taken.

Finding out if someone else already uses a name can be time-consuming, but a thorough vetting by an experienced marketing agency is fairly straightforward. It involves a trained eye, U.S. Patent and Trademark Offices (USPTO) search and some time on Google. That will leave you with a good idea if it’s in use, and a trademark attorney can confirm if there are any conflicts with trademarking it in the future.

But what’s trademarkable anyway? You might be surprised to know that not everything is. You can’t trademark generic terms like tissue. You can’t trademark something that is deceptive, like healthy snack bar for a candy bar. The USPTO won’t allow scandalous or immoral marks. And, lastly, you can’t trademark someone’s name (unless you’re famous and you trademark your own, like Chuck Norris).

So, what is trademarkable, then? There are five different types of trademarks, which vary in degree of strength. Some are more registrable with the USPTO than others. Let’s start with the least registrable.

Generic

A generic name is a common name for what you are selling, and you can’t trademark it. A popular example would be the word tissue. You can’t trademark that if you’re literally selling tissue—which explains why Kleenex® isn’t called tissue. If you’re selling corn, you can’t trademark the word corn. If you’re selling cards, you can’t trademark the word cards.

Descriptive

The next level up from a generic name (but only slightly) is a descriptive name. For example, if you are selling a car, you can’t trademark car, but you can trademark quick-breaking car. That’s because you’ve added a description. Car is generic. Quick-breaking is descriptive. Together, you have a registrable trademark, as long as your description doesn’t conflict with another trademark.

Suggestive

Next are suggestive marks. These marks give people an idea of what your product or service is or does. It’s a bit confusing because that sounds like a description or a descriptive mark, right? They are different. A suggestive mark takes a little imagination. It doesn’t blatantly state the characteristic of the product or service, but it does suggest it.

One of the best examples I’ve found is GREYHOUND. The folks at Mark Law state it well, “For instance, it takes an imaginative leap to realize that greyhounds are sleek and fast, and that these traits are connoted in the use of GREYHOUND for a bus line.” They go on to clarify that, “By contrast, no imaginative leap is required to figure out that QUICK STOP for a convenience store is meant to connote speedy service, and that such a mark would be classified as descriptive rather than suggestive.”

A few other examples of suggestive marks include Microsoft (microcomputer software), Habitat (home furnishings store) and Jaguar (vehicle).

Arbitrary

Arbitrary marks use existing words that have nothing to do with the product or service. One of the most popular examples is Apple, which has nothing to do with apples. Or, Camel for cigarettes, which has nothing to do with camels.

Fanciful

The easiest way to be sure you can trademark a name is to pull it out of thin air. Fanciful is the most registrable trademark. A name is fanciful when you come up with it and it means nothing. Some examples would be Kodak, Pepsi, Clorox and so on.

Naming a brand or company is complex. At the end of the day, be sure you confirm your new name is protectable with a licensed trademark attorney.

At Paulsen, we offer quick and easy concepting and vetting services, along with logo development to help carry your new name forward! If you’re in the market for a new name give us a call, or email us today at hello@paulsen.ag!

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