By Chuck Knull
A “House Mark” is a trademark that is used to identify the source of a line of products rather than a single product. A company can have trademarks on each of its products and also have a trademark that appears on all its products. The latter is the House Mark.
Trademarks began as signs on stores and identifying marks on products. One went to the Red Lion Tavern because one knew about and relied on its quality of bangers and mash and the strength of the tavern’s ales. If another Red Lion Tavern appeared in the village, the first tavern could sue to have the second tavern change its name. As consumer products came about, purchasers of cough syrup, for example, would look for product names they recognized and trusted. The names and labels on these products became trademarks. If someone else came along and tried to sell cough syrup with a name and label that too closely resembled those of an established brand, the second comer could be sued for trademark infringement and unfair competition. When a maker made only one type of cough syrup, then its brand name was both the house mark and the product’s trademark.
Today trademark law is a consumer protection law. A trademark is registered to a person or company that uses the mark to identify its products so that consumers associate the mark with assurances that the quality, whether good or bad, is what is expected from that product. The first user of a mark is the one who has the rights in it so long as they continue to use it in commerce. Under the current law, the Lanham Trademark Act, a first user who has registered its mark can enforce their rights in the mark in federal court and obtain sanctions against the second comer ranging from injunctive relief to the infringer’s profits. If the infringement is found to be is willful, or done with knowledge of the earlier mark, the first comer may be awarded its legal costs and treble damages.
Adopting a Mark. A House Mark offers immense advantages if it is based on a trademark which has been in long use, such as a mark based on a successful product or successful store name. Trademark protection grows in strength over use time through use of the trademark on a service or product, so choosing an already strong name and enlarging the scope of products or services available in association with the mark allows a business to start off strong.
Thus, the best and strongest House Mark is one which is already a famous trademark or service mark, and if a company is fortunate to have such a mark available or be able to license such a mark for use on a new line of products or services, it can be solid gold. An example of this is the Vicks mark which is strong or famous on VICKS VAPORUB and is now being extended to use on vaporizers, thermometers, tissues and other “cold related” products. Currently, the TIDE Brand of laundry soap is being extended into laundermats.
If a business does not have a strong and long used store name, then it should look for a trademark that is a “coined” or an invented word. For example, a retailer with the House Mark QUALITY DRUGS (a “weak” mark until it has been used for years) might concoct a new mark such as QUADRU, which has no meaning in itself and takes a bit of thought to connect to either quality or drugs. If invented terms are not to a retailer’s liking then adopting a House Mark which is “suggestive” of the products on which it will be used is the next best approach. For example, a retailer could use the mark QUALITY HEALTH for dietary supplement products, citing a suggested benefit of the products. The worst type of mark to adopt, especially as a House Mark, would be a “descriptive” mark. If a store or manufacturer used the House Mark QUALITY DRUGS PRODUCTS the mark would merely be describing what the products. Such marks are not enforceable without huge amounts of evidence that consumers only associate the House Mark with the products. And that evidence can be difficult or impossible to gather.
Trade Dress. Trade dress describes the packaging of products. Trade dress can operate as a House Mark. Examples of such is the Coke Bottle and the MacDonalds Golden Arch.