In this time of shrinking budgets, how much should businesses invest in their trademarks? Companies have imperatives like rent and payroll. On the other hand, this crisis has shown, like no other time, how crucial strong trademarks have been, as sales have been driven by online commerce.
Much has been written about several frightening types of online trademark counterfeiting. Owners of most small- and medium-sized enterprises have been thinking: “This is not the type of problem that is impacting me,” or even thinking, “I should be so lucky to have people copying me…” However, the news is full of infringements and scams involving unauthorized and inadequate PPE, and other healthcare products like hand sanitizer, not to mention medicines themselves.
Even apart from those most grave of violations, sales of everyday products have been built upon strong brand names. The online marketplace, which has in its own ways defined life under COVID-19, would be almost impossible without strong trademark rights. How easily we migrated to online purchasing — even for things that statisticians tell us most of us have not regularly ordered online in the past, like groceries. Powerful brands — trademarks — let us pinpoint exactly what we want and need. A strong trademark creates a direct bond between the consumer and the product. And it is strong information a product name conveys. Today, more importantly than ever, the brand name, or trademark, is the immediate shorthand code which allows us to select exactly what we are looking for, with the exact qualities and characteristics we know we can expect, delivered directly to mailboxes.
Think about having to navigate seas of different products and their characteristics and ingredients, without having any markers which represent the promise of known, continuing or consistent quality. Trademarks perform this function every time you go to the store. Online, the necessity of this effect is multiplied. More than ever, knowing what you are buying is indispensable.
It is often said that the trademark is a promise of consistent quality. Whether you are seeking a luxury item, or a mid-price alternative, the trademark provides reassurance that the buyer is getting the same thing with each purchase of the product — no matter where it is purchased. Online shopping these past couple months has led many people to new and different vendors. The same applies even to the most economical, bargain-basement product. The purchaser knows the product is going to be the same, even if the merchant’s identity is new. Trademark still identifies what you are getting. No surprises, and efficient purchases, are the result.
The trademark of the online vendor itself is vital. It is not some random coincidence that Amazon sales were so high it needed to add tens of thousands of new workers. People understand what levels of service they can expect from Amazon, in terms of order accuracy, delivery, and customer service. The name equals predictably. Especially in the early days of this crisis, online shopping was often the only semblance of normal commerce we had, and was a virtual lifeline for many. Doubtless, Amazon meant superior service to some or annoying levels of service to others. But the trademark gave consumers an expectation of what they were getting when they ordered. Consumers were not forced to put their faith — and credit card numbers — in the hands of an unknown provider. Quickly, other online trademarks gained broader notoriety for fundamental services — like GrubHub (for food), and Drizly (for alcohol). Word spread of the new choices, and of what their names represented.
Imagine a marketplace where each time you order, you have to learn about who you are buying from with no known name or track record. It seems a bit absurd to imagine, since literally for centuries we have relied on a producer relying on its name. We take for granted that the trademark is a shorthand definition which conjures up a world of information, and during this biggest economic disruption that most of us ever will know, the value of trademarks has been reinforced beyond all measure.
So, as you think about your newest products or services, it likely is not an exaggeration to say that the trademark has never been more significant than it is today. It makes no difference whether you are thinking about a new business or product, or if you are focused on the newly emerging economy as your markets start to “open up.” Every business needs to remember the lesson this pandemic has reinforced about the power of brands.
Economists are expecting especially fierce competition, as more businesses chase fewer dollars in the coming months. The power of a strong trademark will no doubt be invaluable in these times.
Do your homework in adopting a name. Follow the tried-and-true trademark rules. If you can, use a name that is distinctive or even arbitrary. If you think you must use a name that simply describes your product, develop some of the mark’s other characteristics, logos, or taglines to help differentiate the brand. Critically, remember to do your homework before making a final decision about your new mark. Do everything you can to research the new name in order to minimize the chance that someone is going to claim that they used the name first (and that you have to stop). This last point is crucial. If you have to choose, remember that the money you invest on clearing your rights to use a trademark, free of interference from others, is the best money you will spend on your brand.