Kelly IP Blog

Like Water For Trademarks: Fluid Marks Take Shape

by Rob Litowitz Apr 30, 2013

“So, if you’re tired of the same old story, oh, turn some pages.
I will be here when you are ready to roll with the changes.”  Roll With The Changes,” REO Speedwagon.

A few weeks ago, a colleague asked me if I could take her place speaking on a panel about “Fluid Trademarks.”  My first reaction, expressed  silently to myself–”What in the world is a “fluid trademark?”  My second reaction, expressed out loud and with utmost confidence–”Fluid Trademarks? Sure, I’d be happy to fill in for you.”   I figured, “I’m an experienced trademark guy.  I’ve  been an adjunct professor of trademarks at two Washington DC law schools. How hard could it be?”  And, my colleague and I, along with three other trademark lawyers, were about to start our own boutique law firm specializing in trademark law.  So accepting a speaking gig would be good exposure for the new firm–Kelly IP, LLP–which we launched on April 29.

I began to tap into my brain’s logic center, hoping that I could solve the “fluid trademark” conundrum through sheer force of mental exertion.  I knew that trademark law protected far more than just names like “Amazon,” logos like Ford’s “Blue Oval,”  and symbols like McDonald’s  ”Golden Arches.”  Protectible marks include color, like Owens Corning’s  pink for fiberglass insulation, sounds, like the roar of MGM’s lion, product shapes, like that of the iPod, and even the decor of restaurants, such as Fuddrucker’s.  Did “fluid trademark” refer to protection for clear, viscous substances, like motor oil or the irradiated, pulsating  ectoplasm of a lava lamp?

Fortunately, before my mental gymnastics led to a brain sprain, I summoned a Google web browser.  And the answer was staring me in the face.  The conventional multi-colored GOOGLE logo had morphed into a whimsical design, like the one above commemorating Valentine’s Day and the birthday of George Ferris, inventor of the Ferris Wheel.  A quick web search on Google itself confirmed what quickly had become self-evident.  GOOGLE is the quintessential  ”fluid trademark.”  Without abandoning its primary mark and logo, from time to time–and for one day only– Google swaps its conventional, static mark for a colorful, whimsical, and often dynamic alter-ego.  As described on Google’s website, these  “Doodles are the fun, surprising, and sometimes spontaneous changes that are made to the Google logo to celebrate holidays, anniversaries, and the lives of famous artists, pioneers, and scientists.”

 Google began tinkering with its logo in 1998, even before the company incorporated.  According to Google lore, “founders Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] played with the corporate logo to indicate their attendance at the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert. They placed a stick figure drawing behind the 2nd “o” in the word, Google, and the revised logo was intended as a comical message to Google users that the founders were “out of office.” While the first doodle was relatively simple, the idea of decorating the company logo to celebrate notable events was born.” 

The public’s appetite for and delight in Doodles grew, leading Google to assign a team of designers to come up with events and achievements to commemorate by adapting Google’s trademark in what has now become a “trademark” style of innovative variation.  So far, over 1,000 Doodles have graced Google’s homepage since Larry and Sergey created their first “out-of-office” graphic message.

From that somewhat random origin, the so-called “fluid” trademark has become not merely a fad; they are the wave of the future.  As one commentator, Lisa Pearson of Kilpatrick Stockton LLP,  puts it, “the most innovative companies are adopting fluid trademarks.”  That’s no doubt because fluid trademarks are eye-catching, flashy, fresh, and interactive.  They clearly are a marketers delight–building consumer interest and brand loyalty.

But is “fluid” necessarily good from a trademark law perspective?  Fluid marks certainly buck conventional wisdom, which holds that trademarks should remain the same, consistent, and dependable.  Although they may evolve to fit the times, as did Betty Crocker and Colonel Sanders, those evolutionary changes unfold gradually, and stay in place for decades.  But a mark that can change overnight on a designers whim?  Ask a trademark lawyer 20 years ago whether fluid trademarks make a brand stronger or weaker and she’d almost certainly blanche at even the thought of tinkering with a brand’s image as bravely and brazenly as Google and other companies have been doing.  (Other notable fluid marks include, well, a couple of fluids–Absolut Vodka, whose variations on its bottle theme helped define a new era in liquor branding; and Perrier, which temporarily replaced its name with provocative words “Sexier, Crazier, Flirtier, and Sassier,” all in Perrier’s signature script:

But the trend towards “fluid” trademarks has been inexorable, even as it might give trademark purists heartburn.

So what are brand managers and the trademark lawyers who love them supposed to do?  Work together.  Make sure that fluid marks conjure up the original mark–that they are, as Lisa Pearson puts it, “recognizable riffs” on the underlying mark.  Make sure the original mark also remains in use, and is not discontinued for any appreciable amount of time. (Dropping a mark for an extended period can give rise to claims that it has been abandoned). 

Reserve “fluidity” for strong brands with strong recognition–brands that, like Timex, can take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’. ( It does little good to tinker with lesser known brands if consumers might not recognize their “fluid” cousins) 

Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water–keep what works, and make sure the variation play off the mark’s basic characteristics. 

Consider protecting the variation through copyright registration, when appropriate. Besides serving as trademarks du jour, Google’s Doodles are works of art and subject to copyright.  Google, in fact, has an online store where it sells posters and other articles featuring its various Doodle designs. 

And last, be gentle with the public if, as may be inevitable, fluid marks inspire imitation and parody as sincere forms of flattery.  Nothing can tarnish a brand faster than a heavy- handed enforcement campaign directed against loyal customers.  If there is no alternative to litigation, be sensitive to the public relations angles, and choose the defendant carefully. 

My education on fluid trademarks is hardly complete.  There are nuances and subtleties to rolling out and protecting a succesful “fluid” trademark campaign that remain to be discovered.  But so far, innovative brands like Google, Absolut, Perrier, and others who have dared to defy conventional wisdom, have energized their trademarks while captivating the public’s imagination.  Any guess about what Google’s next Doodle wil be?

QUOTE OF THE DAY: ”If we don’t change, we don’t grow.  If we don’t grow, we aren’t really living.”  Gail Sheehy

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