Recently, the British optical chain Specsavers successfully trademarked the words “should’ve” and “shouldve.” Surprising as this may seem, it makes perfect sense why.
A semi-coined, colloquial contraction, the word “should’ve” is highly ownable. It embodies the flippant, small-town grumble-humor found in Specsavers’ ads. And, most importantly, it triggers the tagline that causes the entirety of the British populace to mouth two more words (“gone to”) and then say the brand name.
But why trademark only one word? What’s wrong with using all four?
One of the reasons is practical. Taglines have morphed into hashtags. #shouldvegonetospecsavers leaves you only 115 characters to play with. Plus, by granting consumers just the verb, they have the option to customize and get involved. But I think there’s something else here too. After years of coordinated campaigning, “shouldve” is so synonymous with Specsavers that it is now too valuable for the brand to not legally ring-fence. Before the move to trademark, the word was public property and competitors had every right to use it and siphon off Specsavers’ vibe (much like #LidlSurprises did to Tesco’s nonlegal ownership of “little”). Specsavers may have just opened the floodgates; it’s clear single words are now up for grabs, and word associations are well worth fighting for. Coke’s got “share” and “happiness.” IBM has “smarter.” And Trump ended up with “great.”
Is owning one word the new litmus test for a good brand?
If you watched UEFA Euro 2016, you may have spotted another example of single-word ownership on the striking banner ads that framed the pitch. Carlsberg font, Carlsberg green, but no Carlsberg name. Instead, just one word—“probably”—legally trademarked in the United Kingdom and the primer for Carlsberg’s tagline: Probably the best beer in the world. The beer brand clearly paid a fortune for front-row advertising and yet avoided using its own name. The reason? French law—loi Évin—dictates that booze and cigarette brands can’t appear on television. So, technically, Carlsberg didn’t. A genius loophole that few brands could exploit or would have the confidence to pull off. Carlsberg ran this advertisement knowing that its word “probably” would, more than probably, resonate with European sports fans. It was a serious display of brand braggadocio that proved to be a winning formula.
Over the summer, Budweiser decided to go one-word as well. In an aggressive grab at provenance, it changed its brand name (albeit temporarily) to America. But this action was very different from Carlsberg’s. Both “probably” and “America” acted as a stand-in for the respective brands, but only the latter acted as a true synonym for the brand. Budweiser’s was an equity transfusion—sucking out ideas of liberty, democracy, and patriotism to coincide with the Olympics and United States presidential election. “Probably,” like “should’ve,” was a trigger—the verbal equivalent of playing half a jingle.
Here’s the thing. Legally or by affiliation, brands own single words for many different reasons. Some words are synonyms for a shared attitude, others for brand positioning, customer relationship, or key messaging. And some are just tagline triggers that are too valuable not to claim. This is not a newfangled fad or a strategic must-have. Brands shouldn’t look to instantly condense their equity into a single term. I doubt Nike will become “do.” Amazon won’t become “done.” But we should take note. In a messy, multi-platform world, a single word allows brands to be single-minded, achieve pinpoint positioning, open legal back doors, and, of course, take advantage of the chance to boast about a damn good brand.
This piece was originally published by Transform Magazine (10 November 2016). Republished with permission.