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Five Types of Trademarks: Generic, Descriptive, Suggestive, Arbitrary, and Fanciful

By John DiGiacomo

Trademarks are valuable business assets. Trademarks help your business grow by creating customer loyalty and awareness of your products and services. Customer loyalty and awareness help a business maintain its market share. Repeat customers are an important key to success. Further, if created and nurtured properly, trademarks can help your business expand into new markets and into new lines of products/services by “bringing” loyal customers to your new product line and/or market.

Legal scholars and officials at the US Trademark Office recognize five different types of verbal trademarks or service marks:

  • Generic
  • Descriptive
  • Suggestive
  • Arbitrary
  • Fanciful

Generally speaking, generic trademarks cannot be registered with the Trademark Office unless, over time, the generic trademark comes to have what is called “secondary meaning.” A generic trademark is one that does not function as a trademark. By its nature, a generic trademark does not — cannot — “connect” in the minds of consumers a commercial source of goods with a product or service. A generic trademark either identifies a broad type of product/service, like LAW FIRM, or uses common words, like TRIANGLE or BLUE. Since it does not function as a trademark, a generic trademark has no strength.

By contrast, a descriptive trademark is stronger and CAN function as a trademark, but is still considered a weak type of trademark. Usually, a descriptive trademark must be given time to create and establish secondary meaning in the minds of consumers. As the name suggests, a descriptive trademark describes what products or services are being offered for sale or, sometimes, describes a location such as NEW YORK DAIRY.

A suggestive trademark functions better than a descriptive trademark, and is stronger since it is easier for consumers to “bring to mind” the “connection” between the mark and the product/service. This sort of trademark implies what goods or services are being offered for sale, but does not overtly describe them. Good examples include AIRBUS and KITCHENAIDE. Neither trademark describes a product or service directly, but evokes a sense of what is being sold. In the case of AIRBUS, it is air transportation and, with KITCHENAID, what is evoked is a sense of devices that are helpful for cooking. The KITCHENAID trademark is owned by the WHIRLPOOL corporation which is another good example of a suggestive trademark.

The strongest trademarks are arbitrary and fanciful. An arbitrary trademark is one where the words/phrase have no normal relationship to the product or service. The trademark APPLE is probably the most famous modern example using a “food” word in relation to computers. Trademarks based on surnames often fall into this category like TIFFANY.

Fanciful trademarks are one that use invented words like GOOGLE and XEROX. Fanciful trademarks are often considered to be the strongest type of trademark.

For more information or if you have questions about creating and registering a trademark or if you are facing trademark litigation, contact the trademark litigators at Revision Legal at 231-714-0100.

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