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Apple is well-known for its practice of creating tremendous buzz before its products even launch. The goal for doing this, of course, is to drive foot traffic into stores and digital traffic to apple.com where, hopefully, more than a few consumers will find themselves purchasing the gadget. Product webcasts featuring a sharply dressed spokesman in front of a screen spinning crisp images of the new product and crisp animations usually involving someones hand or fingers (what other part of the body so ably demonstrates the features of a phone or tablet?) announce this year's must-have product with great fanfare. Apple's annual Worldwide Developers Conference has similarly become a widely-followed tech-carpet gala where devoted Apple fans can gain an insight into the latest product and software developments from Apple.

Devotees have their own mediums and methods for following Apple's latest technology conquering, from blogs to underground fanatic websites (I follow a few of them myself; some of these websites seem to be almost an extension of Apple's P.R. department). A favorite topic in recent years has been the discussion of potential product names for new Apple products. In 2007, there was a particularly spirited debate over whether Apple could use the trademark iPhone given Cisco's previous ownership of the mark "iPhone" for a cordless phone that could make calls over the internet. Apple eventually won that battle by making Cisco go quietly (well, sort of).

The run-up in speculation on the most recent product gadget began at least as early as June 2013, when Apple first filed an application for “iWatch” in Russia. Speculation was fueled by Apple’s further trademark moves in Spring of 2014, where the idea that Apple would launch into smart watches was merely a filament of most people’s imaginations. But at that early stage, Apple had merely filed applications in countries other than the U.S. leaving people to wonder how Apple would ever overcome the substantial obstacle posed by other trademark registrations for the mark “iWatch”. Also, most people probably expected Apple to adopt the name iWatch, falling in line with the practice of using the “i” prefix, like it had done for so many years in connection with significant products like the iMac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad.

Well, as it turns out, Apple decided not to run the gauntlet of other companies that had already laid claim to the iWatch name. The decision not to use the iWatch name could have been influenced by a lot of things, but it probably wasn’t for the trouble that Apple would have gone through to secure the trademark (negotiations with other owners of the iWatch mark, paying significant sums to acquire the mark, etc.). After all, Apple went through the same trouble in 2007 with Cisco (no legal lightweight) when it sought the iPhone trademark. Anything Steve Jobs want, Steve Jobs got, don’t you know.

So if iWatch is out, surely “Watch” is the clear runner-up? It’s so simple and streamlined, both of which fit Apple to a t. Also, it seem highly marketable and doesn’t have the same techy overtones that may discourage consumers from purchasing the product for fear of not knowing how to work it. But alas the mere word “watch”, however elegant, doesn’t cut it as a trademark. Don’t you know that you can’t use a word that describes a function or feature of the underlying goods? That’s the sign of a descriptive mark, and a descriptive mark does not a strong trademark make.

Apple was forced to trudge along without the benefit of using a legacy mark (“iWatch”) or the more commercially intuitive (“Watch”). Watch as a name still apparently had great appeal to Apple (get it, “appeal”?), but the company had to settle on a way to use that name without casting it in such an obviously descriptive way. There is usually only one way to do this: tagging the company’s namesake or another long-used mark (what’s deemed in the trademark biz as a “house mark”) on some portion of the trademark. Fortunately for Apple, their main house brand APPLE has become a household name for consumer electronics such that a consumer seeing the mark attached to the front of another consumer item may have no trouble making the connection to the innovation behemoth.

That’s just what Apple did last fall in the U.S. and several other countries. Patently Apple, one of those aforementioned Apple fan blogs, provides a nice illustration of the two styles Apple claimed in its trademark applications:
This formulation avoids the whole quagmire of getting into a proverbial shouting match (or an attempt to force a purchase of a prior mark) with prior trademark users who were using the “iWatch” trademark.

Is this a tactic that only Apple could get away with? Well, no. Anybody could use a house brand to make a certain mark more distinctive. Whether simply using a house mark would distinguish the goods from another companies, however, is another story. The underlying house mark has to be pretty widely recognized in the marketplace to be protected. Apple’s decision in 2007 to drop the word “Computer” from its name made it that much easier to attach the APPLE mark to multiple goods and services, without consumers thinking that the underlying device was too “techy”. Indeed, Apple has been following this strategy for years, at least since the early 1980s when it released its word processing software under the name APPLEWORKS.

Apple may not always get what it wants but when it falls short of its own plans, it creates its own universe. It may be a little too early to tell, but I think APPLE WATCH will be just as effective at pointing back to Apple as iWATCH would be.
 


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