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What’s in a Name?

How food, drink and horticulture start-ups should go about choosing their brand name.

Gary Osborne, Insight & Brand Planning Specialist

Whats in a name Source.PNG

Arguably the basic function of brands is to help consumers navigate their increasingly busy lives.  If you know nothing about cars and have limited interest in learning about engineering, internal combustion engines and optimal tyre pressure levels then brands like Tesla, VW and Ford become very important in helping you take a short cut to the best solution to your problem.  But what are the consequences of not checking properly in advance that a brand name is usable in the territories and the product categories the producer wishes to use it for? What pitfalls can be avoided in order to prevent expensive legal bills further down the line? Trade mark infringement can be an expensive business with the potential to scupper a start-up. Apple famously had to reach an agreement with the Beetles in order to use the brand in its musical endeavours.  How can small and medium size food and drink companies avoid this?

A free resource to help small business in this area is the Intellectual Property Office of Ireland and should be the first port of call after the initial Google search for the brand name. The problem however is this database only covers exact matches to existing trademarks rather than brand names that sound similar and it’s possible to be sued even if the trade mark isn’t identical. To do everything possible to minimize the possibility of landing in hot water it’s best to use a professional trademark lawyer who can advise the business of the likelihood of any challenge.  For example, another entity may own the trade mark but not be actively using it. Trade marks not used in the last five years risk being lost to someone else.

Beyond the legalities, distinctive brand assets are essential to help consumers to distinguish your brand from a plethora of others in a very noisy environment. One mistake food and drink start-ups often make is to choose a name that describes exactly what the product is or does. This can then lead to problems later in the company’s development when they want to diversify into other sectors.  Will Mastercard still be happy with the word ‘card’ in its brand name when in years to come we no longer have pieces of plastic in our wallets to help us spend money?  Other cultural shifts can be more difficult to predict but potentially even more damaging.  Mars Food has recently completed a rebranding process from Uncle Ben’s to Bens Original due to the racial stereotypes the original branding perpetuated. Titles such as uncle and aunt were often used in southern US states to refer to black people, instead of the more formal and respectful "Miss" or "Mister".

Finally, think digital! Understanding what domain names are available for use with particular brands is a crucial step before making a final choice and launching. www.whois.net allows searchers to trace the ownership of a particular domain similar to a property register and the date of the registration.  Cleverly, the site also generates suggestions of domains that are not yet registered for the company to consider.  Cybersquatting is a murky business where someone with no connection to a business whatsoever registers the domain in their name in the hope of a future pay out from a company that genuinely wants to use it.  There’ve been a number of high profile victims of this so checking in advance is essential.

References:

Corcoran N, Irish Times (2021), Why a brilliant brand name matters for business success

Booker, B, NPR (2020), Uncle Ben’s Changing Name to Ben’s Original After Criticism of Racial Stereotyping

Canvass 8 Report, (2019), What are the components of a successful brand name?