Company Brands, Trademarks and Product Brands

Today, almost everyone speaks of the power of a “brand” as if it is a singular thing. But the reality is that commerce has different types of brands that give products value, and these company brands are not always appreciated when there is a product brand associated with the product, as well. A brand is really a set of words or images that convey a message to the consumer. The power of a brand is how it makes a consumer change his choices, to pick one product over another.

Companies, however, get the idea of brands confused, especially in this area of corporate mergers. And thus we have the waste of an asset, namely the corporate brand. This can be evidenced by the vintage Battleship game, seen here at right at a local Target store toy department just last week.

The game Battleship is the trademarked product, and Hasbro is the trademarked company brand that appears on the front of the game. But what is missing is the Milton Bradley brand, which for generations was the nation’s best-known brand of games and puzzles. Milton Bradley, the company of Springfield, Mass., was the inventor of most of the popular games of the late 20th Century, including Battleship, Operation and Life. For years after the company’s purchase by Hasbro, Milton Bradley was preserved as a company brand, but gradually, as time has gone on, that connection has been forgotten. This often happens as time goes on. Because the product will sell well without the old company brand, new employees do not value it, and it goes to the wayside, wasting brand goodwill.

In one sense, there is some merit in clarifying the ultimate maker of a product, particularly when a product is made by a publicly traded company. For instance, Salem Media Group is the owner of the Salem Radio Network, and also has newscasts as Townhall.com. The unfortunate thing about the confusion is that the listener is not reminded of the Salem Media Group, of which it should be reminding, at every chance, that it is a publicly traded company.

In the case of a company brand that is not the company that makes the brand, the brand should be preserved if it gives the product an aura. Exactly what that aura is is hard to define. But a good example of it is Fisher-Price, which was once a separate company, and is now part of Hasbro. When you say Fisher-Price, you have a certain idea of what is being sold, namely quality, safe, and mostly analog toys for small children.

Reviewing The Issue

Let’s start from the beginning, and look at the various ways a product is identified. This is larger than the legal area of trademarks or intellectual property, which is more defined. If you go to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, they have a wide description of marks for trade:

A trademark is a word, phrase, symbol, and/or design that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of others. A service mark is a word, phrase, symbol, and/or design that identifies and distinguishes the source of a service rather than goods. Some examples include brand names, slogans, and logos. The term “trademark” is often used in a general sense to refer to both trademarks and service marks. 

The USPTO also delineates between word marks and stylized marks. Simply put, this is the difference between the trademark of Coca-Cola, which is trademarked by name, and also as a scripty image, the famous Coca-Cola stylized brand that appears not only on the drink Coke, but on every Coca-Cola product and as the corporate name for the Coca-Cola Company. When you search the USPTO Tess database, it offers a search of both “Basic Word Mark” and Word and or Design Mark Search.

Definitions in Practice

But in thinking about and protecting intellectual property, it helps to understand the differences between types of brands, outside of the legal issues. There is value in each of these types of brands. Some basic definitions. And a reminder that a brand is not necessarily a trademark.

Some definitions:

Name Brand: This is the difference between a generic product, and or a name brand. While some products are associated with only one brand, such as Bayer aspirin, the name is what gives a product added value. Also referred to in compound adjective form as a “brand name” product.

Product Brand: This is a defined product name that is trademarked as a brand. So, for instance, pictured here are Ritz Crisp & Thins. Appearing on the package is both the Ritz name, along with a sub-product descriptive words, Crisp & Thins. In the top left corner is the Nabisco trademark, a red circle. A product brand is also a Mustang, traditionally associated with the Ford Motor Co., but a separate product. Most products do better in association with a good company brand. In fact, the company brand can make a product brand more valuable. A Converse shoe, in our minds, is both a specific shoe, and a shoe brand. If you say I want a pair of Converse shoes, most likely you would be thinking about a pair of Converse All-Star Chuck Taylors. In this situation, the product would be a pair of “All-Star” or “Chucks” or “Chuck Taylors.” However, Converse also makes many types of goods, and it is a company brand. So it would be the Converse Jack Purcell. In that situation, the Jack Purcell would be the product brand.

Company Brand: Company brands can be products. You might buy a pair of Nike’s, or a can of Campbell’s soup, but there is also a publicly traded company that has the same name. In the case of Campbell’s, there are many companies that make tomato soup, but Campbell’s on the label gives the soup its value.

The products of Procter & Gamble illustrate the power of the company brand; while Tide and Ivory are well known as individual brands, the name Procter & Gamble, on the back of the package, gives value to the product. When Ivory was first created, the P&G label was really a stars and moon design, which has since mostly disappeared. The company issue is found with the product brands of Nabisco, formerly the independent National Biscuit Company, which for generations have been adding value to product brands like Uneeda, Ritz, Oreo, Triscuit, and Chips Ahoy. The company even advertised that there was “quality in our corner” when it spoke of the red triangle. Companies are well aware of their product brands, and protect them zealously if they are wise. Nabisco’s new owner, Mondelez, uses the red triangle frequently.

Nabisco’s red triangle and P&Gs moon and stars are also perfect examples of classic trade marks, graphic ideas that are marked on passages.

Make: A type of car, that is a brand in itself. In the case of cars, the car brand “make” is often more important than the product brand. The product has little or no value outside of the company. Mercedes mostly emphasizes its make as the brand, with only numbers as models. Lincoln tried this with its initialed MK, and went back to model brands. So the MKC is now the Lincoln Corsair. The trademark and logo is all about the make, which is really the product brand. BMW and Ford are makes, and also publicly traded companies. However, Ford has a subsidiary “make” called Lincoln and BMW a “make” called Mini. Jeep has also had a number of parent companies and was also the company brand, having been part of Overland Automotive Division of the Standard Wheel Company, Willys Overland, Kaiser-Jeep, American Motors, Chrysler and now Fiat Chrysler.

The differences between the company and product brand can be fluid, as they say these days. A company brand can turn into a product brand, and vice versa. Think of Philip Morris, which is known to be a tobacco company but for generations was known as a cigarette brand, as well. Eventually, as Marlboro became their chief product, the Philip Morris name fell to use mostly as the company name.

Spinoff Brand or Company

Companies often discount the company brands they own when there are buyouts. It is unfortunate, as there is no downside to keeping these legacies alive, and many ways to do it. Parent brands can be separated from their progeny. A good example might be Bausch & Lomb, which made Ray Ban sunglasses. The company sold the Ray Ban brand, and while it had more value as part of Bausch & Lomb, an eye company, it can also survive on its own.

It has evolved. Bausch Health, a drugs healthcare company, was formerly Valeant, an inane created name. Bausch & Lomb had become merely a product brand. When the company became Bausch Health, named for its eye products, the company took off, harnessing the value of the old Bausch & Lomb identity, so beloved and trusted.

We are in an era of mergers, consolidation and monopoly, a time not seen since the era of the trusts and Teddy Roosevelt. Companies are buying other companies, shutting out competitors, and closing factories, all to own certain segments of the market. It is as if we are watching the reverse windup of an American history textbook, where oligopoly was destroyed, and the American way of life thrived.

Only a few decades ago, companies understood the value of a company brand. Products were most often advertised this way. A couple of reasons why. First, because it did not cost extra, and it gave the product an extra value that could translate to other products. Thus one product’s halo could surround another. Secondly, it enabled you to launch new products without tarnishing the halo of the other product. The corporate name stood behind the new launch. Thirdly, it did not make store shelves look like communist countries. Currently, the product brands are extended so far that it looks like one product dominates an aisle, instead of a group of products from a company.

We found, at Dollar Tree this week, a game at the checkout counter called Parker Brothers No Apologies. The Parker Brothers name appeared in giant sized logo in the top left corner. Parker Brothers, of course, is associated with games like Monopoly and Clue, but today is no longer an independent company and is part of Hasbro. So in this case, the Parker Brothers brand was attempting to give value to an unknown game called No Apologies. That the game was in a Dollar Tree is an example that maybe the strategy was not working. Or, it was an attempt to keep the Parker Brothers brand alive through use at the Dollar Tree, which is often a useful strategy to protect intellectual property.

Some Good Ones

Some examples that have or are being forgotten, mistakenly. We would love for readers to add to the list in comments below.

  • Wham-O: Associated with Frisbee, but the glory translated to the Nerf.
  • Shulton: The parent of the Old Spice brand, which is now part of Procter & Gamble.
  • Mennen: A talcum and men’s product company, best known these days for Speed Stick, but no longer used. Now part of Colgate-Palmolive.
  • Gillette: Once a brand of all sorts of men’s products, and now more of product and shaving brand owned by Procter & Gamble.
  • Newport News Shipbuilding: Once independent, then part of Tenneco, and now a unit of Huntington Ingalls Industries.
  • Kenner: A toy brand that was best known for its Easy Bake Oven and Spirograph.
  • Amoco: Once independent, now part of BP, killed off mostly, but revived as a gas station brand.
  • GAF: Now a brand for roofing, but was used through most of 20th century as a film and photography brand.
  • Bell & Howell: Used for photo products, and now all sorts of cheap electronics.
  • Morton Frozen Foods: Now obliterated, and products like pot pies sold under other names.
  • Bell Subsidiaries: The former Bell System subsidiaries missed the goodwill associated with their regional units. C&P Telephone, and ignored their ability to use the trusted Bell name. Thankfully AT&T kept its name through mergers.

Whenever possible, companies should keep these corporate names in the active column. Instead of confusing the consumer, they are a valuable hidden link to the past that most don’t notice, but trigger memories in some. Use the company name on a product, or on a tee-shirt, or on a division. Try out a new product, just to give it some viability.

While they might not be needed at the immediate time, having them as an extra arrow in the quiver is important, as companies get bought and sold frequently, and often you need a name for a spinoff company. Even better, the over-riding corporate brand can be used to launch new products without tarnishing or over-extending brand names.

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