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How 3 little letters can make a big difference in how we think about brands

Ohio State won a trademark war over ‘the,’ but the three-letter word actually shapes how we perceive other brands, too.

How 3 little letters can make a big difference in how we think about brands
[Illustration: Fast Company]

The Ohio State University’s recent success in trademarking the word “the” was certainly a head-scratcher for those of us not well versed in intellectual property law. Even after accepting that such a common word could be protected as a trademark, we were left to wonder how much distinctiveness the seemingly blandest three letters in the English language could provide. After all, the job of a trademark is to distinguish a product from others, clearly identifying who produced it.

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[Images: USPTO]
Ohio State, and fashion designer Marc Jacobs, who also has used “the” to brand his products, seem to have succeeded in wringing meaning from the word by using it in a tongue-in-cheek way that reveals a certain silliness inherent to the idea of the trademark as an indicator of origin. It’s hard to imagine anyone really thinking, “I’ll buy this T-shirt because it has a ‘the’ label, indicating that it was produced by The Ohio State University, and I know that school has a reputation for making high-quality apparel!”

But beyond this ironic approach to using “the,” it turns out that the word can have quite a bit of utility in branding products and organizations. Using, or not using, the word in different contexts allows for often subtle points of differentiation to be communicated in a business name.

As English speakers, we’ve been conditioned to expect the use of “the” in certain names but not others. Consider the example of the names of musical groups. It would have been jarring in 1964 if Ed Sullivan had announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, Beatles!” (although there’s an ongoing controversy as to whether the band’s proper name is “The Beatles” or just “Beatles.”) By deliberately omitting “the” from their name, Talking Heads were able to express a minimalist weirdness that added to their mystique, even if they had to use the title of one of their albums to clarify that they were “the”-less. British rockers The The were able to take this band-naming issue to its logical extreme.

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[Images: Wiki Commons]
So naming can often raise the question: “To ‘the’ or not to ‘the’?” There’s not a lot of daylight between the mastheads of The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times—same name and blackletter script—but the New York paper pointedly includes “the,” signaling an East Coast formality. This type of use of “the” can connote importance and primacy, adding gravitas to corporate names like The Hartford and The Carlyle Group.

But using “the” in this way can also project haughtiness. Last month, the German men’s national soccer squad dropped its nickname, “Die Mannschaft” (“The Team”), because it was perceived as arrogant (ironically, the name had more distinctiveness in every language other than German). And if, as in this case, the “the” is called upon to do the heavy brand lifting on its own, the result can be a name that is utterly weak and confusing in its nonspecificity (such as “The Band” and “The Basketball Tournament”). And a “the” name without the heft and recognition to live up to the seriousness implied by the article can be ripe for derision, as when Steve Martin sarcastically apologized for snubbing a then-unknown future filmmaker: “Sorry, I didn’t realize you were the Judd Apatow.”

Refusing to use “the” when it is expected—a la Talking Heads—can add character and an exotic flair to a name. The Toronto Blue Jays’ stadium was originally christened “SkyDome,” with no “the” in sight. And if you’d like to come across as hip and outdoorsy on your next trip to Arizona, skip the “the” and call it “Grand Canyon,” its actual name. Conversely, slipping in an unanticipated “the” can be a breath of fresh air to an old name, as the producers of “The Batman” surely recognized.

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[Image: Warner Brothers]
For much of the 20th century, “the” seemed to be disappearing from company names. As management scholar Jean Boddewyn noted in his pioneering 1967 study of corporate names, early corporations often “had long names such as ‘The Proprietors of the Boston Pier, or the Long Wharf in the Town of Boston in New England.'” But as the public became more familiar with what modern businesses did and no longer needed their names to be explanatory, they became shorter, often shedding words like “the,” as when “The Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company” evolved into “IBM.” Even today, the public tends to drop “the” from company names once they become well-known, as with The Home Depot and The Gap.

Analysis of United States Patent and Trademark Office records shows that the overall rate of use of trademarks starting with “the,” as parts of company names, product names, or slogans, peaked in the 1990s and has been declining ever since. As a result, Ohio State, Marc Jacobs, and any other business planning to incorporate “the” into its branding might be able to reap additional distinctiveness from this common word that is being used less commonly. 

James I. Bowie is a sociologist at Northern Arizona University who studies trends in logo design and branding. He reports on his research at his website, Emblemetric.com.

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