What Name Makes the Strongest Trademark?
Co-written by Will Montague, intellectual property attorney.
Choosing a good name is betting on the future. It would be easier to get your first customer with a descriptive name like Brad’s Car Wash or Will’s Book Shop. But you aren’t trying to get one customer. You are trying to build a brand. And, brands live in the realm of metaphor, of story. Brands create scenes we want to live in: running a marathon, enjoying a date, playing with your kids, making the world better.
While that sounds lofty, it creates practical reasons why you would pick an interesting name. You are investing in intellectual property for your company, and you will want something that you can protect. If you hire someone to do the name generation, you must choose well.
Choosing well hinges on the idea of inherent distinctiveness. A name must “identify and distinguish” and not describe to be inherently distinct. There are three categories: fanciful/coined, arbitrary, suggestive. Also, there are two categories that are not inherently distinctive: descriptive, generic. Here is a breakdown of the types.
These types of names often sound made-up. You can think of Skype, Zillow, Etsy. They don’t mean anything apart from associations with the brand. These names are inherently distinctive and would be considered the strongest types of trademarks. Choosing a name like this feels risky. They initially sound weird. They don’t come with meaning baked in. But, in addition to being a strong trademark, these types of names can be the foundation of a strong brand. Often, it is easier to get URLs and social handles. And you can create the story. The meaning is yours to make.
These names are also inherently distinctive. They come from recognizable words but may not immediately match the most familiar definition. Apple is a good example of an arbitrary name. It is an existing word used for an unrelated concept. Trademark protection depends entirely on what products or services a mark is used to sell. Apple is a strong arbitrary mark when used to sell computers and phones, but it’s generic when selling apples. Additional examples are Amazon and Virgin. These names also feel risky because they feel out of context at first. However, as brand names, you can use the power of metaphor to tell rich stories. When you think of the Amazon, do you think of a powerful river or an ecosystem rich with diversity?
These marks make the inherent distinctiveness cut, but they’re a bit weaker. There is a relation between the meaning of the word and an attribute of the product. Some suggestive names are Greyhound, Coppertone, and Nike. They don’t describe the product or service but suggest attributes. Nike doesn’t represent a type of shoe but might suggest victory through association with the Greek goddess. We can use Apple again here. There is a story of William Tell winning his freedom by shooting an apple off his son’s head with a bow and arrow. So, hypothetically, an archery company could sell Apple Targets. The name here suggests that you could become a good shot with practice. So, Apple Targets might be a defensible trademark. But because of the dominance of the computer company, it might cause problems in other areas: short URL, social handles.
These names are most common in local businesses. They are like the imaginary names in the introduction: Brad’s Car Wash and Will’s Book Shop. While descriptive marks are not inherently distinctive, they can acquire distinctiveness over time. Southwest Airlines is a good example. The average consumer no longer identifies the name with the service region (the southwestern US) but as a distinguishing factor for an airline offering lower-cost rates in a fun atmosphere.
Generic terms can never serve as a trademark. To keep the example going, it would be like using Car Wash or Book Shop. Those types of names might clarify what you do but can not be used to distinguish your business and isn’t a trademark. A once-distinctive mark like “Aspirin” can even become generic over time as a specific company’s product becomes synonymous with the product category.
A good name is an investment in the future. It is a bet that a brand will be more valuable than a commodity. It is a bet that your company will grow its way into a name that might feel strange (or fanciful) today. It is a bet that you will grow into something worth protecting. Build the brand that will change the world tomorrow. But, today, choose a bold name. You won’t regret it.