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At a time when many brands are fighting to maintain their identity in a cluttered market, should you build your brand around a symbol alone?

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Adidas recently lost its bid in an EU court to tighten its three-stripe trademark. While an Adidas spokesperson has said “the verdict does not affect our ability to use and protect the three stripes,” it’s a definite blow to an iconic company that, established in 1949, was long referred to as “the three-stripe company” by founder Adolf (Adi) Dassler. The decision opens the door to competitors looking to push the envelope with similar brand identities.

In an era when premium brands are aggressively battling to maintain their distinction (in a market full of knockoffs), does it make sense to build a brand solely on a symbol?

Some brands are doing exactly that. Mastercard, for instance, recently dropped its name from its logo and is now using only the two circles. And Nike has long run with its Swoosh, recently valued at US$26 billion.

The ubiquitous McDonald’s golden arches often stand on their own, literally and figuratively. In fact, they were at the centre of an award-winning outdoor campaign where close-cropped sections of the arches doubled as directional arrows on billboards.

While these brand symbols carry a great deal of clout, they also run a higher risk of confusion and potential for infringement. Take Adidas for example: the EU decision aside, they’ve been in and out of court with Skechers (and others) for years, as the use of a design element as simple as stripes can be hard to protect and enforce.

The Toronto Raptors, meanwhile, are being sued by Monster Energy drinks: Monster has alleged since 2015 that the team’s “claw marks” are infringing on the Monster “M”.

All brands come with copyright risks. Including a name with a logomark does not guarantee protection, but it does reduce the risk of infringement by adding a layer of complexity and an extra element of originality.

Ultimately what every brand is seeking is to be considered original – to stand out in a competitive, often cluttered market. A symbol may be compelling, but a name alongside it makes it that much more distinct. And as these legal battles show, even for a corporate powerhouse like Adidas, distinction is no mean feat.

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