IP, Technology & Data

Google made headlines recently by announcing that it was creating a new holding company called Alphabet (let’s call it “Google Alphabet”). Larry Page, co-founder of Google, explains the reasons for this choice of name here. Given this expressed enthusiasm for the name, it may seem odd that the domain name Google has adopted for its new company is “abc.xyz”.

Introducing BMW Alphabet

Less curious perhaps, given that the “alphabet.com”, “alphabet.co.uk” and “alphabetonline.com” domain names are all owned and operated by a subsidiary of BMW – Alphabet International GmbH ( “BMW Alphabet”).

Some reports (here) suggest that BMW are investigating whether Google Alphabet is infringing any BMW or BMW Alphabet trademarks. Larry Page’s statement notes that “we are not intending for this to be a big consumer brand with related products—the whole point is that Alphabet companies should have independence and develop their own brands”.

The clear message is that there is no intention of using Alphabet as a brand and thus that BMW have no need to be concerned. Despite this it seems that a lot of thought has gone into it: “We liked the name Alphabet because it means a collection of letters that represent language, one of humanity’s most important innovations, and is the core of how we index with Google search! We also like that it means alpha-bet (Alpha is investment return above benchmark), which we strive for!

A quick search for the word “alphabet” at the UKIPO produces 76 results. It is a name used by a significant number of businesses in a large variety of sectors. In these circumstances, it is unlikely that any party can claim it is hugely distinctive of it or that there is likely to be confusion due to Google’s use of it. Thus the risk of brand disputes seems minimal.

In any event here is no doubt that Google launched Google Alphabet with its eyes wide open and was fully aware of all the other Alphabet brand users out there. Its decision illustrates how the distinctive nature (and hence the value) of a brand can be lost, or at least diminished, by the sheer prevalence of its use. However it is also possible for a once highly distinctive one product/service brand to be devalued as a direct result of its own success.

Genericide

There are many examples of what has become known as “genericide”. This where a brand becomes so prominent for what is initially a unique product or service that it is then used by the public for any equivalent product or service launched in the market. This makes it vulnerable to attack as it lacks distinctiveness the basic ingredient of a brand. In this case “googling” is at risk of becoming a verb, meaning to search the internet. The famous example in the UK is Hoover. Think also Jeep, Jacuzzi, Aspirin and Escalator. All started out life as brands, and then became widely used to generically refer to the items of the type in question.

Google’s motives?

It has been suggested by some that the Google Alphabet Company creates a fall back in case “google” or “googling” does become generic. Google Alphabet may provide some shelter. The difficulty with that maybe that, as outlined above, use of the word Alphabet as a brand is so prevalent that it may lack the ability to distinguish – which ultimately is what a brand is all about.

Perhaps a better explanation is that having this umbrella Alphabet company may put some more distance in the public consciousness between the Google brand and some of the more risky (or “far afield”) projects with which it is involved. ‘Drone delivery’ is just one example. That lack of association between Google and these ventures may afford the Google brand some protection against any negative publicity which they may generate.

To quote Larry Page: “We are still trying to do things other people think are crazy but we are super excited about.” Clearly, whatever the Google strategy, it is likely to prove far more complex than it first appears.

IP and Technology

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IP and Technology