Intellectual property — things like trademarks and copyrights — wasn’t among my interests in law school but has become a hobby in middle age, especially thanks to the marketing creativity of fish and shellfish canners here on the Pacific Northwest coast.
The salmon packers and oystermen of the Columbia River, Willapa, San Francisco Bay and Puget Sound would completely understand and empathize with the issues faced by local craft brewers and distillers as they navigate the world of branding, and protecting brands from encroachment.
Long before there was mass-market advertising and social media, there was great reliance on branding as a way to attract consumer attention and build product loyalty. When hundreds of companies competed to sell canned salmon — from 1870 to 1950 a major American menu item — it was vital to make your cans catch the eye of the housewives who did most of the shopping. This marketing “arms race” eventually led to creation of thousands of different brands.
Surviving corporate records of these early entrepreneurs reveal epic confrontations over branding. Then as now, in a big and busy nation it seems these trademark transgressions were often accidental. But there certainly are sometimes indications that smaller upstarts might have tried to ride on the reputation of better-established brands. Then as now, legal threats usually resolved the issue.
Both Oregon and Washington maintain extensive archives of past trademarks registered at the state level. (For a few of Oregon’s, visit tinyurl.com/OldTrademarks.) In Washington’s files, a visitor can see when Boeing first established its legal claim to that now-famous name, for example. In Oregon’s are some of the Columbia’s earliest salmon brands, including the one from Clifton printed on page 23 in this month’s CRBJ.
A great deal of modern marketing creativity involves the brewing and distilling industries, which rely to great extent on creating a positive and unique first impression on potential consumers. Like canned goods, these products vie for limited shelf space and customer attention. Although factors like value, taste and quality generate repeat sales, a compelling name and label make all the difference in generating an initial sale to a consumer who producers hope will then buy time after time.
Branding decisions are notoriously tricky. It’s almost impossible to predict which will last and which will fall flat. Around here, many firms make an understandable bet on aligning themselves with local history, maritime culture and similar cultural touchstones.
My advice is to thoroughly research existing trademarks to avoid infringement issues, recognize that spending a little on professional legal advice can save a lot later on, and invest in a high-quality design. Beyond
all this, make a great product! Easy, right?