Trademarking the Dictionary

By Stephan Ango · December 21, 2015

Music, Paper, Watch, TV, Sketch, Pencil. Which companies make a product with one of those names? The answer is… Every major tech company you’ve heard of, from Apple to Microsoft, Google, Adobe, Dropbox, Facebook and up-and-comers such as FiftyThree and Bohemian Coding.

It’s part of an ambitious effort for technology companies to make their products synonymous with the basic activities in your life.

For decades gadgets have often been named by their model number, which occasionally earned notoriety, such as the HP-12C or the TR-808. Over time companies found it more appealing to use memorable trademarks such as Walkman or Game Boy.

In recent years, however, we’ve seen the rise of common words being used to brand products. A poignant example is Apple’s recent shift away from the “i” prefix introduced with the iMac, to simply using the names Apple Watch, Apple Pencil and Apple Music for its newest products.

There are four main reasons for this shift.

1. Redefining words for the digital age

As we continue our trajectory from analog to digital technology, an opportunity has emerged to re-define the meaning of words like “pencil” and “watch”. It conveys the desire to make technology less futuristic, and more like an evolution of the things you already know. Naming a product Pencil or Watch makes it feel more familiar and approachable.

2. Reducing the burden of memorization

The word “Watch” in Apple Watch is so commonplace and intuitively descriptive of the product that all you really need to remember is the word “Apple”. When you walk by an Apple Watch billboard on the street, you don’t need to remember a product name, just “Apple” and the fact that they make a watch. When you walk into the Apple store all you need to ask is “Can I see the watch?”

3. Reducing the burden of choice

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 he notoriously slashed the convoluted matrix of product lines from twenty down to four. Apple would focus on making just four computers: consumer desktop, professional desktop, consumer laptop and professional laptop. This simple structure still defines the Mac product lines today: iMac and Mac Pro, MacBook and MacBook Pro.

This change allowed the engineering teams to put more wood behind fewer arrows, but also made purchasing decisions much clearer for customers. Simplifying the product names implies simplifying the product offerings and reducing the burden of choice for your customers.

4. Owning the concept

The most cynical take on this trend is that companies want to own ideas. The opportunity to re-define words for the digital age has also become a battleground for brands to take ownership over the definition of those words.

By calling it “Apple Music”, there is an implied message that Apple can satisfy all your musical needs — that the concept of music itself belongs to Apple, and that when you think music, you think Apple. Similarly, by co-opting the word “like”, Facebook has created a brand association with the mere act of enjoying something.

This is where the “common word” approach to branding can fall short, particularly when multiple companies set their sights on the same word.

Owning common words is not easy, for both legal and linguistic reasons. When FiftyThree launched its app Paper, it could have never foreseen that both Facebook and Dropbox would eventually make apps by the same name. Unfortunately, it’s a legal fight FiftyThree can’t afford to have. Not only do Facebook and Dropbox have much deeper pockets, but the use of such a common term puts their defense on shaky ground to begin with. Consumers are left prefixing the capital “p” Paper with the appropriate company name. To make matters worse FiftyThree was burned again with Pencil, a word which Apple recently commandeered.

With the proliferation of this trend, ambiguity is a recurring concern. If you’re a designer who enjoys working in Sketch, you may be referring to Adobe’s drawing app or Bohemian Coding’s popular UI design app. I shouldn’t have to mention that ambiguity is the antithesis of branding.

The danger I see for companies like FiftyThree and Bohemian Coding is that they’ve put more effort in marketing their product names than their company names. As words like “Paper” and “Sketch” become commoditized by well-known brands, there is a potential for those smaller companies to lose the memorable edge they had created.

While the pendulum may swing back towards unique trademarks — especially for smaller companies — I think this strategy will continue to be popular with companies large enough to jostle for valuable words. In fact seeing which of them are capable of staking out common words is a good proxy for measuring their weight in the industry. Remember Microsoft Office?

Ultimately I don’t adhere to the cynic’s view of this strategy because it has already lost its novelty. My optimistic perspective is that language is quick to react. People have adapted to using the brand name in conjunction with the product name, thus defusing any corporate ownership of our vocabulary. What companies are left with is the responsibility to match the simplicity of their product lines with the simplicity of their branding. And that’s a good thing.

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