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The Futility of Trademarks in Professional Services

Should a professional services firm trademark a marketing slogan? While I’m not a lawyer, I believe that practically speaking, trademarking (more accurately, servicemarking, the term used to secure the naming rights to a service rather than a physical product) a word or phrase to promote a professional firm’s service is an exercise in futility. It may even be counter-productive.

A story in Monday’s New York Times drove this point home. The article cited a lawsuit between consulting firm LRN (which is in the business of helping companies create ethical cultures) and yoghurt manufacturer Chobani. The two are fighting over the marketing use of the term “how.”

That is not a misprint.

LRN CEO Dov Seidman published a book in 2007 with the word in the title (“How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything”). Chobani, a $1 billion brand (according to this 2013 Bloomberg Business Week article) that’s roiled the yoghurt section of grocery across the U.S., uses the phrase “How Matters” in an advertising campaign.

It’s a fool’s errand for professional services firms to try to protect from poachers slogans to promote their intellectual capital. I can’t imagine that clients care two cents about whether a professional firm coined some term. Plagiarizing articles? Verboten, for sure. Stealing methodology. Bad too.

But protecting a word or phrase? First, it’s counterproductive. A professional firm should want the world to embrace and adopt a phrase that it coins or otherwise uses in marketing. Letting the word become part of the common vernacular should be the goal.

If that professional firm publishes more and better content on the topic than anyone else, and does even a little bit of marketing, it eventually should gain recognition for it as, for instance, Tom Davenport did for business analytics, and Robert Kaplan and David Norton did for balanced scorecard, neither of which were trademarked. But putting a servicemark on a word or phrase is bound to discourage others from using it for fear of violating the mark.

Second, being the only entity that’s legally allowed to use a word or phrase in a marketing campaign isn’t likely to do much to impress prospective clients. What will? Showing deep and unique insights on the issue beneath the label, and trotting out examples of clients who have benefited from those insights.

Ultimately, the only way to remain competitive in professional services is to generate superior results for clients. Superior results come from developing better approaches to solving some client issue, and then training and developing your people on those approaches. And, of course, hiring better people is a given.

The business world is littered with servicemarks that no one else uses: “We listen,” “I am not your company's computer guy,” and “Great Repeatable Models," to name a few.

Protecting a slogan for a professional service? Useless.