What's in a name?


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Co-authored by Emma Reeve.

The best brands become household names and can even become part of the lexicon. Think about ‘hoovering’ the house and ‘googling’ a recipe. They become the go-to product or provider, like taking a Nurofen after a stressful day, instead of just a plain old Ibuprofen or Isobutylphenylpropanoic Acid. 

Those who fail to capture the imagination or convey their core brand purpose will quickly fade into obscurity.

An increasingly agile economy, where international brands are being created every day, presents new challenges for businesses and their advisors trying to come up with the right name and subsequently protect their interests.

Names are changing. It’s becoming less important to create names that describe what a product or business does. 

For example, when Midland Bank launched a direct bank in 1989 they called it ‘First Direct’. Roll forward to 2013 and BNP Paribas launch a digital direct bank called ‘Hello Bank’. The need to include an explanatory ‘direct’ or ‘digital’ has disappeared as consumer understanding of the concept has grown. 

Names these days often tell us little about the company structure or location. Terms such as ‘Group’ and ‘Company’ as well as owner, town and country names are disappearing. This reduced need for explanation and locality has allowed brand owners to concentrate on making names unique , short and memorable. Zoopla, Spotify, Skype and Uber are now commonly used as verbs.

But, while new words can stand out easily among more traditional names, globalisation remains a considerable challenge. Brand names now need to work across the world, taking into account a range of linguistic and cultural factors, such as local meaning and pronunciation.

Just think about brands such as Seat, Ikea and VW. Seat in English, of course, is something that you sit on, rather than in. Volkswagen may be conveniently shortened to VW, but still has varying pronunciation across languages from ‘fau-vey’ in German, to ‘vey doobla vey’ in French and ‘vee doppe-ah voo’ in Italian.  

Ikea on the other hand has managed to educate the world to say ‘ee-kay-ah’ fairly successfully. There is a school of thought that believes a name that is difficult to pronounce creates a talking point and is therefore a good thing. In Ikea’s case it was the basis of an entire advertising strategy! 

After devising a list of names that work in multiple contexts, the next challenge is settling on the right one. The naming process is academic and linear, existing in a bubble, separated from real life exposure and meaningful context. Long lists of names are whittled down by excluding potential trade mark clashes, available URLs and negative associations.  

Market research goes some way towards rectifying this by gathering the opinions of the target market. However, this exercise is still in many ways sheltered, being presented often without the support of a creative platform and without the benefit of the associated brand experience. It is the combination of these factors that help a name to become successful.  

Ultimately, organisations cannot know how a name will perform until it is in the real world, representing products or services. It’s meaningless until real life customers have had an opportunity to build an association, good or bad. This ultimately makes naming a risky business. It’s easier for start-ups though. There is no legacy to worry about, only the future. A failed name can disappear overnight, to reappear the next day as a much stronger incarnation. 

Regardless of how a name will be received by the market, in this globalised, internet-driven world, brand owners are well advised to secure trade mark protection as quickly as possible to avoid issues further down the line. 

But, while it’s advisable for an organisation to seek protection in multiple jurisdictions where it operates, there are numerous issues with protecting on a global scale, such as differing laws, processes and a myriad of organisations and individuals who may have grounds for objection.

The IP challenge: Protecting a name

 Brand owners should take a structured approach by devising a strategy, or hiring an expert who will take into account commercial aims, differing legal and cultural processes, available budgets and achievable timescales. 

But protection also has limits. Trade mark protection provides a monopoly to the brand owner to use the name in relation to its own goods and services, but does not preclude others from using that name to denote other sorts of goods or service. 

For example, the name ‘Polo’ is used as a brand name both for cars made by Volkswagen and for mints made by Nestlé. Both companies are able to use the name without any great confusion. However, if either ever decided to diversify into the other’s market, trade mark law would offer protection. 

Descriptive brand names, such as ‘Office Cleaning Services’ on the other hand offer fewer opportunities for protection because in practical terms they are more difficult to preserve or enforce. By far the safest route is to opt for a unique name, for example ‘Kodak’, which is inherently distinctive. 

Brands should be aware of one potential drawback of achieving success in becoming a verb or ‘household name’. From a trade mark perspective a name can become so generic that it becomes difficult to enforce ownership, such as ‘Aspirin’, ‘Xerox’ and ‘Photoshop’. After all, common language is owned by everyone. It can be a fine line between branding success and lost Intellectual Property.

As a brand name becomes more popular and a reputation is built, it takes considerable effort by brand owners to prevent third parties from free riding. 

To safeguard against misuse, brand owners can buy watch services, send letters and pursue contentious proceedings. Enforcing rights can be tricky and expensive, but ultimately it’s a matter of finding a workable balance between the cost of enforcing those rights and the dilution of the brand.

It’s clear that we now live in a more dynamic global marketplace. Today’s brand names are the products of globalised companies, global citizens, disruptive technology and constantly shifting ideas.

With so many variables at play, brands now have to accept greater complexity and greater risks, making trade mark rights more important than ever.

Successful brand owners will future-proof their brands to protect and commercialise their key assets. This means creating new ‘distinctive’ words, using derived words and unusual spellings, as well as using marketing concepts and legal provisions to prevent the misuse and dilution of their brands for as long as possible.


About Emma Reeve

Emma Reeve is a trade mark attorney from leading IP Law firm Mathys & Squire. She works with UK and global clients advising on how they can protect their brands.

This article first appeared in Industry Magazine Issue 1.