intellectual property

How to Pick a Good Brand: Distinctiveness

I disagree with marketing people all the time.

Marketers want your brand to easily and immediately communicate what you do so that customers who are interested in your marketing will know to pay attention. For example, if you sell clothing in Salt Lake City, then having a brand that says “Salt Lake Apparel” very quickly and easily communicates what you do and where. Now customers who see your marketing piece will know right away if they should focus on the marketing, which then allows your marketer to devote the rest of the marketing “space” to being persuasive. That optimizes the efficiency and effectiveness of that marketing piece.

I get it, I do.

But it is shortsighted.

Every time you market, you build up an awareness of your brand in the communities you serve. Every time you create a good experience for a customer, you grow that awareness and build value into the relationship. Over time, this can build up tremendous value in the branding. I.e. when they see your branding, they know that you deliver on the promise of a good experience and that makes them very willing to engage with you.

But, what if someone can come along and just copy your branding?

That is exactly what can happen if your branding merely communicates what you sell. Trademark law is not designed to protect the business owner; it is designed to protect customers from being confused about who they are buying things from. According to trademark law, if you pick a brand that simply describes what you sell, you are making no effort to be distinctive and therefore deserve no protection.

It makes sense to have a distinctive brand and the more unrelated your brand is to what you sell, the more distinctive it is. For example, a clothing brand that is “84722eQwFV995” would be very distinctive. That has nothing to do with clothing, and I don’t think that any other brand comes close to looking like that brand. But I don’t think any marketer is likely to be happy about that brand. It is just too crazy, too hard to remember, to confusing, etc. Clearly, we need some middle ground.

If there is a spectrum of distinctiveness, then maybe the middle ground is found in the middle of that spectrum. So, here is a quick look at that spectrum (from least distinctive to most distinctive, assuming the product being sold is off-the-rack clothing):



Generic or Merely Descriptive

     Clothing, Apparel, Clothier, Attire, Garb, Garments


     Outfitter, Tailor, Duds, Weaver, Finery, Wardrobe, Costume, Cotton, Silk, Plaid


     Cozy, Stretch, Bright and Clean, Breathe, Mom-made, Silken Webs


     Toad, Ice Cream, Phone, Bikes


     Gropp, 3381, Hellmutt, NiceWoket

Conveniently, there are five categories, which means that the third one — Suggestive — is in the middle. If the middle one is the best chance for the middle ground, let’s focus on that.

A “Suggestive” brand requires that the consumer be required to and be able to make some sort of mental leap to connect the brand to the product/service. If the consumer, without ever having seen the brand can easily guess/know what you sell, then it isn’t suggestive (it would be descriptive or generic). If the customer, having seen your brand and been told what you sell, still doesn’t get the connection, then it is not suggestive (it would be arbitrary or fanciful).

That “mental leap” is exactly why I think that suggestive brands are the perfect middle ground. It means that people can be easily taught and can easily remember what is sold under the brand. It also means that people are going to more easily remember your brand and be able to distinguish your brand from others, which is critical.

The very best part is that you can embed a brand promise or culture into the suggestive brand. So, your branding can be VERY attractive to a specific demographic. You can see this in the examples above; there are specific feelings/ideas embedded in those words that mean something more than just the product. They promise something. If the brand owner delivers well on that promise, they will build a loyal customer base. A loyal customer base = $.

I think we can all agree on that.

Disclaimer: There are legitimate business strategies that are optimized using non-suggestive branding. E.g. a brand on a product that is intended to be sold for a short time or in a very limited geographic area might be optimized using descriptive branding, while a brand for a product that has a very large marketing budget and is expected to be sold for a very long time could benefit from using an arbitrary or fanciful brand.

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