In this first part of our three-part series on non-conventional trademarks, we’ll look at color as a trademarked brand. To qualify as a trademark, the color is distinctive or have an established secondary meaning to the customer. To build that kind of recognition, brands use their signature color(s) in nearly everything — marketing, packaging, uniforms, store decor, licensed products and more.

Many brands have sets of colors trademarked for protection against other brands in the same market. It’s designed to set the brand apart within a certain market sector. The trademarked colors only apply for their specific product category, and can be used by other brands in different product categories. For instance, Coca-Cola has its iconic red and white scheme protected. The same color scheme is used by Target but it doesn’t infringe because they are in a non-competing market.

Many others have a single color or shades of a color trademarked, such as Microsoft blue, 3M “canary yellow” for its adhesive notes, the Cadbury chocolate purple wrapper, and construction equipment manufacturer Caterpillar yellow.

Not all colors can be used as a primary color in a trademark. These are known as functional colors. An example is green, because it’s the color of lawns, plants and farmland. John Deere doesn’t own the green in their trademark for this reason. But they do use green (and yellow) in their brand design because of its functional association with their products.

Some color trademarks stand out because they aren’t normally associated with anything in a particular market. A good example is the color pink. It’s the trademark color for Owens-Corning insulation products. Pink doesn’t symbolize anything in the home construction market. But it’s immediately recognized by the consumer and sets Owens-Corning insulation apart from their competition.

Trademark colors extend into product designs and big brand licensing programs. In the fashion world, Louboutin Shoes with red soles is one example. Coke’s extensive licensing program includes many red and white products ranging from pillows to plush bears. And John Deere’s green and yellow is immediately recognized on toy trucks, tractors, polo shirts, and many other products.

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Color is the first thing that people see and recognize faster than images or text. In today’s visually crowded marketplace, a trademarked color can set your brand apart and distinguish it from the competition.

How strong are colors when it comes to brand recognition? See if you can recognize these brands by their color. Answers are at the end of this article.

In parts 2 and 3,  we’ll discuss the other types of non-conventional trademarks, sound and smell.


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