Specsavers’ application to trademark the word "should’ve" has been accepted by the Intellectual Property Office.
This isn’t new. Carlsberg managed the same trick in 2010 with the word "probably". But it is news, because the idea of a brand owning a word is a bit mysterious. And it doesn’t need to involve lawyers. In fact, there are plenty of examples of brands owning words in people’s heads, and not always with the superscript TM to prove it.
"Wings" is as synonymous with Red Bull as that blue and silver colour scheme or those hand-drawn ads. "Simples" is as Compare The Meerkat as Aleksandr Orlov himself. And "Schhh" is as Schweppes as that bright yellow label.
Then there’s "break" for KitKat, "priority" for O2 and "priceless" for Mastercard, to name just a few. Celebrities do it too. I say "pukka", you say Jamie (even if he’d rather you didn’t these days).
I say "garlic bread", you say Peter Kay. This hasn’t happened by mistake. Whether you’ve trademarked it or not, owning a word can bring powerful results.
By limiting their pitch-side ads at Euro 2016 to just the word "probably", Carlsberg got through an alcohol advertising ban and into the homes of millions of potential customers.
But how do you do it? Sometimes a word in a company’s strapline or flagship product name just seems to resonate. When that happens, savvy branding people make sure they use the word elsewhere too. And the more that happens, the more the word comes to stand for the brand itself.
Other times it starts with an invention. If you’ve got a new thing to talk about, you need to coin a new word or appropriate an old one. And since it’s guaranteed you won’t be sharing that word with anyone else, it’ll become inextricably linked with your brand.
Facebook owns "like" (as a verb) and "wall", for instance. And Last.fm owns my favourite of them all "scrobble".
However you get there, the benefits are clear. In his book, How Brands Grow, Byron Sharp talks about how important it is for a brand to have a healthy number of distinctive assets. A word that reminds people of your brand goes straight onto that list, alongside your logo and colour palette.
Except because it’s a word, people say and hear it all the time, constantly reminding themselves that you exist. And if you think about it, the word "probably" feels a lot less like branding than a wavy line or the brand name itself, which makes it more acceptable to brand-averse Generation Y types.
This is the power of distinctive language. And there are five different flavours:
- "Owned" words.
- Tone of voice: Virgin, Innocent Drinks and First Direct are the go-to examples.
- Straplines: "Just do it" is as recognisably Nike as the swoosh.
- Names: Ikea’s distinctive Swedish names like "Hemnes" and ‘"Nornäs" reinforce their brand in the same way as their blues and yellows.
- Stories: Innocent’s "yes" and "no" bins are a powerful part of their identity.
Gradually our industry is wising up to the fact that language can be your logo. Better than your logo, in fact, in this anti-branding world.
Nick Padmore is creative director at The Writer