What Are Trademarks?

Trademarks are word, phrase, or symbol, which represent a company or product. They distinguish the products or services of one company or organization from those its competitors may provide. People can register trademarks to legally protect the rights to their creations, or intellectual property. Some other examples of trademarks include acronyms (like NBC, IBM) and extend to slogans, stylized fonts, and even colors. Read on to understand why trademarks are important and to see a list of trademark examples.

Why Trademarks Matter

Trademarks matter because they allow customers to recognize brands in a crowded market and they keep the next person from copying, or infringing on, someone else's work. Trademarks also encourage companies to adhere to standards. To have consistent sales, they must deliver on their brand promise. Consumers then identify with a brand's values and offerings and expect consistency and quality with the brands they trust. This is how companies build ongoing relationships with the public.

Brand valuation expert, David Haigh, points out that "the single largest source of intangible value in a company is its trademark." Today, Google is the most valuable trademark on the planet at $44 billion dollars. Companies like Apple, Microsoft and IBM offer quality products and services that aren't available elsewhere. Their trademark is what allows consumers to differentiate them from other companies with similar offerings. Competition ensues, companies strive to create the best products and services in the marketplace, and accordingly the public benefits.

What Kinds of Trademark Are There?

There are many different types of trademarks. They can be combined in various ways to align with the personality or look of a brand. Types of trademarks include:

  • Brand names like Apple, McDonald's, and Dolce & Gabbana

  • Product names like iPod and Big Mac

  • Company logos like the golden arches at McDonald's and NBC's peacock logo

  • Slogans like Capital One's "What's in your wallet?" and McDonald's "I'm lovin' it"

  • Words in a stylized font like "Coca-Cola" and "Ebay"

  • Colors like National Breast Cancer Foundation Pink (for fundraising services) and Cadbury Egg Purple (Pantone Color PMS 2685C)

  • Product shapes like the Coca-Cola bottle and Apple iPod

  • Sounds like the three tone chime at NBC and the 'Yahoo!' yodel

  • Fictitious characters like the talking gecko at Geico and the Pink Panther

  • Symbols (also known as devices) like the Nike swoosh symbol and Mercedes emblem

  • Combination (also known as composite) marks include more than one feature like the Starbucks coffee emblem (a name and a symbol) and the signature Tiffany & Co. gift box (a name and a shape)

Proper and Improper Use of a Trademark

There are guidelines to using a trademark properly. The idea is not to alter the registered name itself. For example don't make trademarks plural or make it possessive by adding an "s" unless it's already there. For example, to write OREOS is incorrect. It should be OREO cookies. Jack Daniel's includes an "s" in the name, whereas "Levi" (as in Levi jeans) does not.

Trademarks should be adjectives, not nouns. It's not LEGO'S, but rather LEGO toy blocks. A trademark should also not be used as a verb. One cannot "xerox" something, but rather they "photocopy" it. It's also important to distinguish a trademark in text by using all caps, making it bold or italic, underlining it, or using quotation marks. And of course if it's registered, the registered symbol should be included.  

Trademark Status

There are different symbols to indicate trademark status-- "TM" for trademark, "SM" for service mark and an encircled "R" for registered. They will appear as superscripts after the item they are protecting. The trademark superscript, ™, is usually used for an unregistered trademark to protect a word, phrase, or logo, etc. as a from other potential users. Use of the "TM" symbol does not, however, ensure that it is protected under trademark law. The symbol "SM" protects services rather than products. Similarly, use of the "SM" symbol does not ensure that it is protected under trademark law. Legal protection is guaranteed with the registered mark, "®". This requires registration through the USPTO and it is highly recommended to have a trademark attorney assist you with the process.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do I use a trademark properly?

A brand's trademark should always be used properly by placing it in double quotation marks, using all capital letters, or by placing it in bold, italic, or underlined font. Additionally, trademark examples should always be spelled properly. A trademark should always be used as an adjective (not a noun or a verb). It should never be changed to the possessive. It should also never be changed from singular to plural or vice versa.

  • What happens if someone uses a trademark improperly?

Using a trademark improperly is illegal and there is recourse by the company who owns the mark to take legal action. A person or company can sue for infringement or something called dilution, where the brand's value is being "watered down" by the competitors use of the mark.

For More Information

Not every word or logo can be registered, so it's important to consult with a trademark attorney before your embark on the registration process yourself. Learn more about trademarks and the processes for obtaining, enforcing and exploiting trademark rights with our helpful network of experts at UpCounsel.

Contact an Attorney

If you need help with your trademark, you can post your question or concern on UpCounsel's marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Stripe, and Twilio.