A trademark is a design, word, slogan, symbol or combination of any of those elements that helps consumers identify your products or services from those of the competition. When you see the Nike swoosh or the McDonald's golden arches, you know exactly what that brand is, what type of product you will get and the type of quality you can expect. A trademark plays a key role in building brand loyalty and a strong customer base. Therefore, prioritizing trademark protection is just as important for the solo entrepreneur as it is for the enterprise business.
Trademarks and Your Brand
A trademark is an essential component of a brand's business model and plan. It encompasses your brand identity, reputation and uniqueness. The marketplace is crowded and every brand is fighting, via aggressive marketing tactics, for customer dollars. The crucial role that a trademark plays in the success of your brand simply cannot be overlooked.
You can communicate your brand's values, beliefs, purpose and vision through a trademark. It also distinguishes your brand from others and helps customers make purchasing decisions. When your trademark is identifiable, either by its uniqueness or reputation, customers will immediately know that when they see your mark, they are getting something specific.
Having a distinctive trademark simplifies marketing and advertising. Once your trademark has become recognizable, it may be all you need to use in your marketing materials. A perfect example is the apple symbol that Apple Inc. uses. Everyone can identify the brand just by seeing that symbol. Often, Apple Inc. does not even use words in their advertising.
A registered trademark also provides a clear path for expansion into other markets, both domestic and foreign.
Common Law Protection vs. Registering Your Trademark
You have trademark protection as soon as you use your trademark, even if it is not registered. This is known as a common law trademark, trademark by use or use-based trademark. Common law trademark rights are limited to a specific geographical area and you can't enforce those rights outside of that area.
Often, if you are only doing business in a specific geographical area and plan to remain small and relatively local, this might be enough protection for your brand. If you are a nonprofit, a small start-up business or a single inventor and can't afford to register your trademark right away, a common law trademark will protect your brand as you begin to grow and expand. Your trademark will be protected for as long as you continue to use it.
The other way to protect your trademark is by registering your trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). While registration is not required, it is strongly encouraged because you will receive added benefits and protections that a common law trademark cannot provide. Those include:
- Official notice to the public that you own that trademark. Registration provides legal proof of ownership in case you have to prove this in court.
- Trademark protection nationwide, even if you are not currently doing business across the country.
- Ability to be listed in the USPTO database. This is important because when others look for marks for their own brands, they will see that yours is taken.
- Protection from the importation of counterfeit goods by having your trademark on file with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
- Access to the federal courts if you need to file a trademark infringement lawsuit.
- Ability to file for trademark protection in other countries.
- Right to use the trademark registration symbol (the letter R enclosed in a circle).
Individual, state-based registration of trademarks is also available but the protection is limited to that state and does not include the benefits of federal registration.
If you care about the success of your business, you should not overlook the importance of protecting your trademark. Whether you are taking the common law or registration route, it should be a top priority.