Recently, the New Balance footwear company won a landmark $1.5 million trademark decision in the Suzhou Intermediate People’s Court, near Shanghai, China. Daniel McKinnon, the New Balance senior counsel for intellectual property, told the New York Times: “If the China marketplace can be thought of as a schoolyard, New Balance wants to make it abundantly clear we are the wrong kid to pick on.”
The schoolyard brawl all started when New Balance alleged that three Chinese brands infringed upon its well-known New Balance “N” trademark. The three Chinese shoemakers, New Boom, New Barlun, and New Bunren, saw fit not only to use similar brand names, but also to trade off of New Balance’s international acclaim by mimicking its slanted “N” design on their shoes. A Suzhou Court cited the defendants’ free-riding, consumer confusion, and market harm as the basis for its ruling in favor of New Balance.
What makes this case important is not only that New Balance was prepared to fight for its rights in China—often a challenging thing to do—but also that it was willing to do so over a single-letter trademark.
A trademark is a source indicator that can convey a range of messages about your brand such as quality, price, taste and reputation—the sometimes obvious and sometimes mysterious factors that, in total, are the goodwill of the brand.
Brand owners often reflect upon the value and protectability of words, names, logotypes, slogans and even colors as trademarks. The victory by New Balance in a famously tough territory tells us that a lot can ride on who is found to own and have the rights to exploit a single letter.
Minimalism is as much a factor in trademark recognition as anywhere else in the broad field of visual expression. Mercedes Benz has made a simple three-pointed star one of the most recognizable marks on earth. In the USA, Louboutin owns the color red for the soles of shoes, and Federal Express owns the truncated version of its mark popularized by the public: FedEx. Take it down even further, and you get marks with one or two letters: PayPal is recognized by two cerulean stylized “P’s” and Facebook by a solitary but consequential byzantine blue lower-case “f”. Uber upgraded its former “U” mark to a modernized “U” enclosed by emerald green.
In fashion, designers have been using single-letter marks for decades. Hermès uses its elegant “H”; and of course, New Balance is using its slanted “N”. A few logos have doubled letters: Gucci has made the twin “G” into a brand; as with the seemingly reflective Tory Burch “T”, the mirrored Fendi “F”, and the interlocking “Cs” of Chanel.
Single-letter marks can be significant in fashion because a single letter can serve not only as a logo, but also as a design that can be emblazoned on clothing, handbags, shoes, etc. Meanwhile, the boom in online retail—where a mark may be only barely visible—has been the basis for the further simplification of marks. The large British online retailer Asos recently abbreviated its trademark to the letter “a,” the better to identify the brand on its mobile app.
Credit: Candace R. Arrington
Candace Arrington provides research support as a law clerk to our corporate and business law, intellectual property law and entertainment law practices.
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.
Chanel 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