What Chanel and Kleenex Have In Common

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When Chanel filled the back cover of WWD with an advertisement that was nothing more than black words on newsprint—without a perfume bottle, a skirt suit or even Karl Lagerfeld anywhere in sight—you knew that the topic was serious. The ad was an open letter directed to “fashion editors, advertisers, copywriters and other well-intentioned mis-users of our Chanel name.” It reminded them that CHANEL stands for the designer Coco Chanel, the signature perfume and the company’s other products, and that, “CHANEL is our registered trademark…”

And right they are. There are major brands that are virtually nothing other than trademarks. Run as design studios, they own no factories, and at least under US law, often have little hope of securing legal protection for the exclusive rights to their most successful designs. The good will, which for them is the core of enterprise value, is in the trademarks that identify the source of the products marketed under their brands and by which the public and trade recognize their goods.

The easiest way to dilute or otherwise damage a mark is for the owner and others to misuse it. That is why Chanel insists that a jacket not be called “a CHANEL jacket” unless Chanel makes it. Another easy way to lose a mark for goods is for it to become a generic term, which can start to happen when it is misused as a verb when applied to the goods of others, as in (to use Chanel’s hated examples), “Chanel-ed” and “Chanel’ized.” The ad closes the way you would expect by a piece that, by necessity, is a mild scold—by blaming the lawyers.

Kleenex-Tissue-BoxChanel is right, and even its lawyers are right. So are the lawyers for Xerox, who have been after writers for decades to knock off saying, “Go xerox it” or, just as bad, calling a rival maker’s photocopier a “Xerox machine.” They would rather that you say instead, “Go make a photocopy on the Xerox machine” or, even better, “let’s trade in that clunker of a photocopier for an authentic Xerox brand device.” As that example shows, the price of popularity of a trademark is that it comes to symbolize not merely a single source but an entire product category, which could cause the owner actually to lose exclusive rights to the mark. Other beneficiaries of this happy dilemma are KLEENEX, for facial tissues, and, in the UK, HOOVER, where it is often misused as a verb for operating any vacuum cleaner, as in, “Get your bum off the sofa; I’m going to hoover the floor now.”

Should any trademark for your fashion brand become so well known that it brings to mind an entire product category, you should consider doing what Chanel has done—get the word out that your trademark belongs to you alone and that it identifies you as the exclusive source of your products. To help achieve that goal in day-to-day usage, always use your trademark as a proper adjective, as in, “For my birthday, honey, I’d just love a little trinket, nothing more—say, a Chanel watch.” Your mark should never to be used as a (lower case) noun as in, “I had such a chanel moment today,” (when being admired while walking the dog in a Nike tracksuit). And it must never be used as a verb, as in, “Go chanel your look with a counterfeit Gucci purse.” (The two wrongs in that sentence do not make a right.)

Trademarks last as long as they are used and protected. Use yours well.

Credit:  Alan Behr