Scents: The Unconventional Potential for Trademarks

Amber Peterson, MJLST Staffer

Trademarks are intended to create an immediate brand recognition in the consumer’s mind. Consumers who are satisfied with a product must have a way to easily distinguish it from nearly identical or similar products from competitors. Thus, trademarks play a powerful role in branding and marketing as seen in the Nike “swoosh” and the Target bullseye. These traditional marks or logos are what are typically thought of when thinking about trademarks. However, unconventional trademarks such as the catch phrase “Hasta la Vista Baby” from the film, “The Terminator” and the red color of Christian Louboutin soles can be just as effective to identify a product or service.

The key requirement is distinctiveness. If a product can be thought of as inherently distinctive, it can be trademarked. Thus, the United States Patent and Trademark Office allows the trademarking of a scent since scent is distinctive in that it is deeply tied to memory recognition. Although this option is available, few have accomplished the task since the Patent and Trademark Office has put strict boundaries around what smells qualify.

First, the scent must serve no important practical function other than to help identify and distinguish the brand. This means that those smells whose only purpose is smell-related, such as perfumes and air fresheners, cannot receive scent trademark protection. Second, a detailed written description of the non-visual mark is required to complete the registration process. The problem with scents is the subjective nature of them. The perception of smell can be very different among a number of noses and is thus open to interpretation. This creates difficulty in successfully representing the scent graphically which is required to determine whether something is or is not appropriate for a trademark.

To date, there are only about 12 scent trademarks in the United States (e.g., the flowery musk smell in Verizon Wireless stores and the pina colada scent that a ukulele company scents its ukuleles with). As evidenced, the process of registering a scent can be challenging. However, there are marketing advantages that may make it worthwhile if the product or service resonates more deeply with a consumer compared to a typical visual mark or logo trademark.

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