A company’s trademarks are among its most valuable assets. In most cases, those words and logos are what identify a product or service. Consumers recognize the mark, and this may influence their decision to make a purchase. Really effective and recognizable trademarks can be extremely valuable, which is why many owners choose to register these marks with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Most of the strongest trademarks have little obvious connection to the products they sell. After all, what does the word “apple” have to do with laptops and cell phones? This lack of an obvious connection makes these marks incredibly distinctive and memorable, which is helpful when you’re trying to sell something. Perhaps Procter & Gamble was considering this principle when they applied to register trademarks like “LOL,” WTF” and “NBD” earlier this year.
When most people hear about these applications, the immediate response is, “They can’t trademark that!” The reaction is understandable. These text-message acronyms have been around for years, and millions of people use them multiple times per day. If Procter & Gamble is successful in their quest, does it mean that no one can use these acronyms anymore?
The answer is “no.” Everyone can feel free to keep LOL-ing as much as they like. Obtaining registration of trademarks in the U.S. requires the applicant to use the mark on goods or services that are sold in interstate commerce. The applicant must specifically identify these goods and then actually use the mark on those goods before the mark can be registered. Once these rights are obtained, the owner of the registration may be able to prevent another manufacturer or retailer from using the same mark for the same or similar goods, but they do not necessarily have the right to stop others from using the mark on totally different products or in personal text messages.
As an example, Procter & Gamble’s application for the “LOL” mark says that they plan to use it on products like laundry detergents and fabric softeners. If someone else decided that they wanted to sell LOL Cola, then they’d stand a pretty good chance of getting a registration even if Procter & Gamble already holds a registration for the LOL mark for laundry detergent. Why? Because it seems pretty unlikely that a consumer is going to see “LOL Cola” and assume that it comes from the same people who sell “LOL Laundry Detergent.”
Not all of Procter & Gamble’s applications have been formally examined yet, but it seems likely that the company will be able to register the marks if they meet all deadlines and actually begin using the marks in interstate commerce on the specified products. Of course, the natural question that follows is: “Why would they want to register these trademarks?”
On the surface, the answer isn’t obvious. The acronym NBD has nothing to do with dishwashing detergents. However, all of these acronyms are immediately recognizable to teens and young adults, and that is precisely the age group to which Procter & Gamble is trying to appeal. They already have a stable of well-known brand names like Crest, Charmin, Bounty and Dawn, but they are probably looking for new brands that will appeal to a new generation.
Will P&G Succeed?
Will Procter & Gamble be successful with their applications? It’s too soon to tell. However, this is probably just one piece of a new marketing strategy that may serve to keep this venerable company relevant for a few more decades. If your company hasn’t considered registering any trademarks yet, perhaps now is the time. Contact an attorney to learn about your options.