Label PRomotion | Legal or Lethal? How Far To Go with a Label to Generate Buzz

Here are some ideas to consider when deciding whether to stir the pot or play it safe.

Label purposes can include identification, inspiration, and infuriation. Just how outlandish or out-of-the-box can a label be to maximize exposure and recognition without running afoul of the law or marketplace sensibilities? How closely can a label shape, look, or content emulate a well-known product before it crosses legal lines?

Few would argue that a sexually explicit scene on a label is likely to offend sensibilities at many levels (unless, of course, it’s promoting porn, adult devices, and the like). Yes, it may stir much buzz and get people talking about the product represented—but most companies wouldn’t dare go down this road.

But what about a label that emulates the look of a well-known logo, magazine cover, airplane graphic design, or characters like the minions? This is where the wicket gets sticky fast.

A recent bbc.com article discusses the issue of trademarking product shapes, and what elements must be in place to do so. While the legal standards and thresholds for labels are a whole different game, the points raised by the BBC article merit examination.

The article states in part, “...It's rare for a three-dimensional object to be granted trademark status, but not unheard of. The shape of a four-finger KitKat may not be judged distinctive enough to qualify as a trademark, but those of Toblerone and Nestle's Walnut Whip are. …Coca-Cola first received the status for the contours of its bottle from the US Patent and Trademark Office as far back as 1960…the law requires that the shape is sufficiently distinctive, says Luke McDonagh, an expert in intellectual property law at City University London…The point of this is to allow consumers to distinguish between different products—‘the idea being that consumers would immediately recognise the shape itself and associate it with a particular brand…’.”

Adding to the discussion, an online publication called Plagiarism Today notes in a 2010 article, “…copyright holders have the sole right to distribute derivative works based on an original creation. This includes sequels and any other work that includes copyrightable elements from the original creation.”

While trademark and copyright law differ in many respects, the common theme is, “Don’t use, copy, or imitate my stuff!” Despite this clear admonition, it can be tempting to push the boundaries, either because of a desire to piggyback on a well-known brand or branding element for exposure—or to start a very public legal fight that provides tons of free coverage.

Here are some ideas to consider when deciding the advisability of stirring the pot or playing it safe with label design, content and shape:

  • Use the “Trumpism” litmus test. What image do you really want to project? And, how much are you able/willing to shell out in case of legal challenges? Some believe that buzz, no matter whether positive or negative, helps drive their cause, and outweighs any financial or reputation hits. Currently, Donald Trump personifies this approach. He appears to relish the role of the outlandish, outspoken candidate—and has gotten huge amounts of media coverage because of it. That said, most manufacturers don’t come close to matching his deep pockets in the event of a lawsuit; and are unlikely to enjoy a highly controversial image in the marketplace. However, if willing to take a walk on the wild side, a manufacturer could stir up a whole lot of exposure.
  • Think about the consequences of riding on someone else’s coattails. While it may be amusing and entertaining, you’re not likely to generate the kind of credibility that’s possible with being unique and innovative. If a manufacturer wants to project a one-of-a-kind product reputation, it’s hard to do so if their branding imitates someone else’s look or logo. Do you want to be different or controversial?
  • Let the process drive the buzz. To some degree, this has been the aim of crowdsourcing. By enlisting design and other contributions from the “world at large,” manufacturers can benefit from some great, creative ideas, and generate excitement in the marketplace (e.g., well-conceived contests that profile the best contributions, et al). This type of “stirring the pot” is a much safer way to get the buzz going. For spice, you always can inject a note or two of controversiality into the process—something that doesn’t run a major risk of legal action or reputation damage.

There’s an old entertainment-world adage that any publicity is good publicity—even when it’s negative. When it comes to labels, decide for yourself where on that continuum you want to reside.

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. is president of Lusky Enterprises Inc., a marketing communications and content development company. Since 2008, he has worked with Lightning Labels, a Denver-based all-digital custom label printing company, as a content developer specializing in expert advice articles. Lusky presents common-sense ideas grounded in doing what’s real and right for managing and enhancing public image.

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