Generic names and Trade Marks
In the offline world a generic name is never a good brand name. Such names have limited potential as trade marks even if you manage to register them (which we may manage to do for you in combination with a logo). Nevertheless people choose generic names because the name immediately communicates the type of goods or services the business provides.
Is it any different online? Would brands like Books4Less and PersonalInjuryLawyer be good ones?
Before answering this question, let us clarify what is meant by ‘generic’ from a branding and trade mark point of view. A generic name is one that describes the product a business is engaged in providing. Whether a name is generic is relative. Examples of generic domain names that have reportedly fetched large sums of money on a resale as domain names are Wines.com and Mortgage.com. Such names are generic as brand names for a wine merchant or mortgage provider respectively. To give a ridiculous example, if the wine merchant used the brand name Mortgage.com, or the mortgage provider used the brand name Wines.com, the names would be distinctive rather than descriptive for trade mark purposes (although as a brand name it would still not be as good as a proper name – a side issue which is outside the scope of this article).
So, provided a name does not “consist exclusively of signs or indications which may serve to designate the kind, value, quantity or purpose of goods or services”, it may be trade marked. A distinctive, different and non descriptive name gives you the singularity that is the hallmark of a memorable, trade markable brand name.
In trade mark terms the best names are made-up ones that are suggestive of the product or services to be supplied, but not descriptive of them. If a business can coin a distinctive name – ideally a proper name like Coca Cola, Exxon, Ford, Mercedez Benz, McDonalds, Starbucks, the name will be ideally suited to the purpose of building brand identity around it.
Why not a descriptive name?
The danger in choosing descriptive names is that the business sets itself up for confusion with competitors. Descriptive words are those that competitors may legitimately want to use to describe or advertise their products and services. For example a wine merchant will need to be free to use the word ‘wine merchant’ otherwise it could not engage in its business activity. If the first person to use the word ‘wine merchant’ were able to stop everyone else using the term, then it would give the first comer such a monopoly that they could stop all competition in the marketplace. That is far from what trade marks are designed to achieve.
So, given that you cannot stop competitors using the same descriptive words in their names, choosing a descriptive brand name inevitably means loss of some potential customers because prospective customers who are trying to find you may mistakenly find your competitor instead. Therefore, descriptive names are poor vehicles for capturing goodwill or brand value. You do far better in the long run with a distinctive brand name than with a descriptive one. Once you achieve name recognition trade mark law will prevent competitors free riding on the back of your success by using name that are similar to yours. This is the essence of trade marks – to reduce the likelihood that consumers will mistake other businesses for yours.
Names and brands – online
How does all this translate to the web where there is a tradition of choosing generic brand names? Is a generic name a good choice for an online start up? Well no.
What makes a good brand name offline is no different to what makes a good brand name online. Although people tend to think it is good to opt for generic names – possibly because they confuse the search engine advantages that such names may have with what makes for a good brand name – generic names are in fact a poor choice of online brand name, just as they are a poor choice for offline brands. In the short term they may help you to communicate what your business is all about. For example, if you are called Books4Less, people will immediately know something about your aims. But on the other hand, if you are called Amazon, they will not immediately know that they will get a good price from you. However, once Amazon has proved itself to you, its singular name will be etched in your memory far better than a non distinctive name like Books4Less.
So, why do so many internet businesses choose such bad names? Possibly because when the internet was new, and there were few sites up and running, a common, generic name was an advantage. If you wanted to look for a site selling toys, you typed in “toys.com”. It was like an old fashioned grocery store. Whatever you wanted you looked for by its name. So, a common, descriptive name was the most direct way to communicate what the site was all about. However, the advantages of these descriptive names immediately disappeared once the numbers of websites grew.
Newcomers to the web nevertheless carry on copying what has gone before. They think a descriptive name is the way to go, and adopt such names in the misguided assumption that this is the correct approach. Just because many sites use common names doesn’t mean that a common name is the best strategy for your site. It only means that most internet operators are under group pressure to conform.
Guidelines for choosing online brand names
So, when you are choosing online brand names, try to emulate the successful internet businesses by choosing singular names like Amazon, Yahoo, Dell, Bebo, Facebook and Ebay. These are the businesses that have prospered and entered our collective consciousness, while the numerous generic named businesses that came and went despite enjoying serious venture capital backing have faded into oblivion. All they have left behind are valuable domain names that may have changed hands several times by now, and are principally valuable for search purposes. For example, books.com redirects to Noble & Barnes bringing extra traffic to that site.
Another point to bear in mind when choosing names is that on the internet there are no shop signs or geographic areas to attract passing traffic. With an offline shop called ‘Books’ someone driving past may notice the bookshop for reasons other than its name. For example, the shop may stand out due to its striking window dressing, or by virtue of its location, or simply because it is now there instead of the print shop that used to occupy that space. On the web, people will only find you through your brand name. So, the last thing you need is to get lost among a sea of similar names.