I am a self-professed #TrademarkNerd. I think they are interesting beasts. They combine business, law, social science, and, of course, shopping. When a lot of people think about trademarks, they think about what the company owns and does with it. That’s fair. Companies spend a lot of time, money, and effort on their trademarks. But what I find the most interesting is the amount of influence and control customers have on a trademark. After all, it is all about the customer connecting the trademark to the source of the product or service. Or put another way, trademarks are there to help a customer make sure they are buying the same product or service from the same people they bought from last time. Trademark law is all about ensuring customers are not confused or deceived about where they are buying their products from.
Most companies work really hard to make sure their customers know the source of the goods to be purchased and that the customer will know exactly what it is they will get if they buy that good. For example, you may love them or hate them, but you know exactly what you will get (worldwide) if you walk into a McDonalds. Wouldn’t you be surprised if you were offered a $50 filet mignon under the Golden Arches? If you see a green mermaid on a to-go cup, you can be assured that you know what is in it.
But that effort doesn’t mean total control. Customers can exert a lot of influence on how a company is perceived. It is what the customer thinks about the product that matters. A company wants to say that their shoe is the best for factory workers? Great, unless the punk scene gets a hold of it. And then the mallrat scene. (See Doc Martens.) Or what about those products that take off (or implode) because of a viral social media post? A recent story actually involves a question of intent and, likely, wishful thinking.
Tiffany’s has a very recognizable trademark – their color. Their blue box is instantly known by those who care. I remember seeing people on my morning bus commute in Chicago carrying blue Tiffany’s bags back and forth each day to advertise the fact that they got something there. I’m pretty sure the PB&J inside didn’t know about the upgrade. Some people really care about others knowing that they are connected to a purchase at Tiffany’s. But recently, Tiffany’s wanted others to know about their purchase of a painting. They purchased “Equals Pi” by Jean-Michel Basquiat, which features a distinct color blue and featured it in an ad with Beyonce, Jay-Z, and a 128+ carat diamond. One of Tiffany’s mucky-mucks wanted the connection to be a bit tighter and suggested Basquiat chose that color for its association with Tiffany’s. Others weren’t so sure. The only thing that is clear is that lots of money was spent in hopes that you want to have a little blue box of your own.