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Branding in the Digital Age: A Brief Primer

To compete effectively, a business must achieve market recognition for itself and its products. The economic expansion of the last decade has greatly increased the number of businesses trying to get attention from prospective customers. At the same time, the Internet and other new venues for marketing have allowed for novel ways to compete for that attention. These factors present increasingly difficult challenges for businesses.

New challenges often are best met by tried-and-true responses. In this case, familiar marketing priorities like strong branding and corporate identity programs take on greater importance as businesses struggle to make themselves known. Companies must take effective steps to ensure that their trade names, trade dress and marketing communications convey a consistent and effective message.

A solid branding program should be built on the following general principles:

Use a Comprehensive Approach. An effective corporate identity program encompasses all aspects of the public face of the business – the company name, individual product names, slogans, advertising, Web presence, stationery, color schemes, signage, facilities architecture and décor, etc. Linking product and corporate brands with a common theme can reinforce a brand's strength in the mind of the customer, as well as earning stronger legal protection. In making a decision on any of these elements, consider how the element fits in the overall picture.

Prioritize. The implementation of a branding program requires conscious choices. For businesses that do not intend to spend a great deal of resources on individual product advertising, it may be best to focus on developing and promoting one really good flagship mark, which can be expanded over time to become the basis of a well-recognized "family" of marks.

Be Practical. When choosing a new brand, focus on how the introduction of the new name will advance the company's business. A mark that seems attractive on its face may not actually function well as a brand for your business. Try to base your decision on a professional, real-world evaluation of at least three key points: Does the mark fit into your overall branding strategy? Does it create the right impression in the marketplace for your type of business? Does it raise any trademark law risks? Get marketing and legal professionals involved in this evaluation from the outset.

Be Distinctive. Trademark law favors names which are inherently distinctive. Suggestive, arbitrary or fanciful trademarks will be easier to protect and enforce, and will ultimately make a stronger and more lasting impression in the marketplace. Resist the natural inclination to go with names which immediately convey to the public what the company or product is or does. Such descriptive or generic terms do not make a memorable impression, and are extremely difficult and often impossible to protect as trademarks.

Be Careful. Always screen proposed new trademarks to ensure the name is not identical or overly similar to one already in use by someone else. This is true even for the least important or prominent marks in the corporate family. Thorough trademark screening helps both to mitigate the risk of trademark infringement claims, and to avoid the practical problems that would ensue if consumers were confusing your product or company with someone else's. Manage your marketing programs to ensure that Web pages, advertisements and other marketing communications properly use and attribute the company's and others' trademarks and copyrighted materials.

Register Your Marks. By the same token, in order to prevent others from selecting marks confusingly similar to your marks, support your branding program with a thorough campaign of securing and policing state, federal and/or overseas registrations for all of the company's important marks.

Think Globally. Keep in mind that the protection of U.S. trademark laws stops at the border. Companies doing a significant amount of business outside the United States, whether on the ground or online, should consider screening and registering their key marks in key overseas markets as well as in the United States. It is important to work with legal counsel who have experience mapping out and prioritizing international registrations, and who work with a network of foreign trademark agents to assist clients in such matters around the globe.

Follow Through. Many branding and corporate identity programs look great on paper but will not pay off if they are not properly implemented. Each individual brand in the family must be supported over time by marketing messages designed to build both the single brand and the overall corporate identity. Prepare a graphics standards manual so that the appearance of company trademarks is consistent and correct. On the legal side, follow through by policing and enforcing your marks. Consider subscribing to a trademark watching service to monitor your more important marks for infringing or dilutive activities of others. Call on intellectual property counsel for assistance whenever you are licensing to others the right to use your trademarks to ensure that your legal rights and reputation are properly protected.

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