Children, unlike their parents and grandparents, are often the most brand loyal customers around. Studies have shown that brand awareness can begin as early as two-years-old, and it’s often hard to break a loyalty once it’s been established. For people in the toy industry, this means that a strong brand is the key to success. While several factors can help grow your brand over time, it is important not to overlook a registered trademark and the protections it provides your brand as your business grows.
How Can I Use Trademarks to Build My Toy Brand?
Trademarks provide many beneficial protections to businesses in the toy industry. Consider the following steps as you build your toy brand.
- Create a strong trademark for your toy brand.
- Complete a trademark search.
- File your trademark application, both domestically and internationally.
- Develop brand style guidelines for your employees and vendors.
- Monitor and police your trademark.
- Maintain your trademark through consistent use and renewals.
Create a Strong Trademark for Your Toy Brand
The first step to developing and building your toy brand is choosing a strong trademark. A registered trademark will protect the identifying factors of your product or brand, including your business name, logo, or slogan. Most business owners choose to begin the trademark process by only registering their business or product name. While this is certainly the most important mark to register, in the toy industry, where your target market is highly visual and may not yet be able to read, it is wise to consider creating and filing a trademark application for a logo as well.
You’ve likely entered the toy industry with a unique idea, and therefore, your trademark should be unique as well. The United States Patent and Trademark Office, or USPTO, specifies which types of trademarks are best, and which will likely not be granted. Avoid using descriptive words in your mark, like “great” or “fun.” These generic words are so widely used, there is no way to enforce their exclusivity. Suggestive terms are stronger than descriptive words, using words or phrases that do not describe or relate to the product you are selling. The trademark with the highest likelihood of approval is considered fanciful, or completely made up. “Crayola” is a great example of a fanciful trademark. A unique trademark that cannot be confused with competitors is an essential brand building strategy.
Complete a Trademark Search
The USPTO will reject any trademark applications that are considered too similar to existing registered marks. For this reason, once you’ve decided on a strong trademark, it is best to conduct a comprehensive trademark search. This search should be done before you submit an application to the trademark office. While it can be frustrating to learn that your toy’s trademark has already been registered, it is best to learn this in the pre-application phase. This way, you will have the opportunity to make needed changes prior to investing time and money into an application.
Many entrepreneurs, in an effort to save some money up front, opt to conduct a trademark search by themselves, either through a DIY legal site or a simple search engine, like Google. Unfortunately, this budget saving measure may end up costing you more in the long run. Most search engines or software available to the public will only reveal exact matches to your trademark. Most trademark disputes, however, do not come from identical marks, but rather similar marks that could create a likelihood of confusion in the marketplace. To ensure that you have conducted a comprehensive search, it is best to work with an experienced trademark attorney, whose search software will reveal not only exact word matches, but similar matches to existing business names, logos, or slogans as well.
File Your Trademark Application
Once you determine that your trademark is not already in use, you can begin the process to register your trademark. First, register domestically. If you are in the United States, this means you will need to file your application with the USPTO. While your application is pending, you are free to use the ™ symbol. Upon approval, you can, and should, begin to use the ® wherever your trademark is displayed, including your product, packaging, advertising, and website. This adds a level of validity to your brand and helps to ensure the mark’s exclusive use.
Following your filing with the USPTO, you may want to consider extending your trademark protections internationally. In today’s global marketplace, where so many sales are conducted online, it is not outlandish to think that you may do business outside the U.S., either through manufacturing, distribution, or direct sales. To register internationally, you can apply directly to each country’s trademark office, or you can utilize the Madrid Protocol. This treaty allows you to file a single application, in your home language, which can then be applied to any of its more than 90 member countries. While trademark decisions are still made on a country-by-country basis, the Madrid Protocol can be a simple solution if you plan to register in many different countries.
Develop a Brand Style Guide
Brand recognition is key to continual success in the toy industry. In order to build that recognition among your customer base, you should consider how, where, and when your trademark is used. A brand style guide can serve to educate your employees, retail partners, and manufacturers on the use of your mark, to ensure its consistent use. The guide should include specific details on not only the trademark, but also approved color palettes, fonts, and logo options. The consistency across the product line and throughout the company will help to establish an easily recognizable brand. Children of any age will be able to identify a toy associated with your business, which means your trademark will also serve as effective advertising for your line of toys.
Police Your Mark
While the USPTO and other trademark offices around the world register trademarks, it is not their responsibility to monitor possible infringement. That responsibility falls on the trademark owner. In order to best protect your toy brand, you must actively monitor and police the use of your trademark in each country where you’ve registered. The exclusive control of your trademark is vital to building brand loyalty and a strong customer base. Failing to do so could lead to counterfeiting, knock-off products, and eventually a diluted reputation.
It is important to know your rights as a trademark owner. If you suspect that an individual or business is infringing on your mark, take swift action to control the situation. Often a cease-and-desist letter is all that is needed to put an infringer on notice, but occasionally additional legal action will be needed to remedy the situation. Trademark attorneys are experts in navigating trademark disputes of all types. In many cases, they will also take on the time-consuming task of monitoring your trademark’s use in the marketplace, so that you can focus on building your toy brand, not your trademark.
Maintain Your Mark
In the U.S. and many other countries, your trademark protections will never expire, as long as you continue to offer the goods and services associated with it and meet renewal deadlines. This means as your brand grows, your trademark will grow along with you. However, in order to maintain a strong mark, you must be consistent with its use. Enforce the use of the brand guidelines you’ve created to ensure that employees and vendors use the same design, logo, and name as they appear in the original registration. Inconsistent use of the trademark can weaken its protections and future infringement may be harder to prove.
In order to maintain your trademark as your brand continues to grow, you must keep up with renewal deadlines. Keep in mind that the USPTO does not alert trademark owners of approaching renewal dates. This is the responsibility of the trademark owner. Your first renewal date will occur between the fifth and sixth year of use, followed by a renewal between the ninth and tenth year. After that, you will file for renewal every ten years. If you miss a renewal deadline, the USPTO may change your trademark’s status to Abandoned or cancel it outright, either of which could allow another business or individual to register your trademark in the future.
A registered trademark can play an integral role in brand building, especially in the toy industry. Once you capture a child’s attention through a strong, unique mark, you are often able to rely on that customer for future purchases. Consistent use of the trademark ensures that it will always be recognized, which creates a level of built-in advertising as well. A registered trademark will protect your brand as it grows over time. However, it is your responsibility to monitor and maintain the mark to keep those valuable protections. Whether you are preparing to launch your first toy or your toy brand has an extensive line of products, the time to protect and grow your brand through trademarks is now.