How to make a mark

In today’s marketplace manufacturers must take a more brand-conscious approach to product development, argues Tom McGuire

Whether we like it or not, technological advances have placed every UK business in a global marketplace.

The increasing pressure from overseas and domestic competitors means that the need to protect and exploit new ideas has never been greater.

UK engineers and entrepreneurs are much more aware of the value of intellectual property rights than they were 10 years ago. Most R&D-led businesses are diligent about protecting their products – via patent, copyright, design right and topography right registration. However, others are still failing to recognise the benefits of the trademark.

Innovative use of design, plus strong branding, can give a big market advantage. Protect the brand with a trademark and that advantage can be greatly increased. Provided renewal fees are paid, trade marks offer `everlasting’ legal protection. Patents, on the other hand, run out after 20 years, while design right protection lasts a maximum of 25 years.

Trademarks also provide important protection in small overseas markets in which patent registration is not seen as cost-effective. Worldwide trade mark registrations can cost 10 times less than obtaining worldwide patent protection.

The scope of what can be protected by a trademark was greatly expanded by the Trademarks Act 1994, and now includes shapes and even smells. Manufacturers that seize this opportunity for differentiating themselves in the marketplace can reap long-term benefits.

A prime example is the Dyson dual-cyclone vacuum cleaner. Dyson’s main patents are due to expire soon, but a trademarked design and strong brand awareness will extend those patents’ life. Others may start making dual-cyclone vacuum cleaners, but there will still only be one Dyson.

Strong branding will become more important as e-commerce takes off. Consumers seeking a dual-cyclone vacuum cleaner will be more likely to search against `Dyson’ than against `vacuum cleaners’ or `dual cyclone’.

This does not just apply to consumer products. Components can also be branded effectively. For example, by branding and heavily marketing the Pentium chip, Intel has created a consumer demand which motivates its customers (computer manufacturers) to buy its product.

The message to all engineers, entrepreneurs and manufacturers is to be more brand-aware. To look beyond the functions of their products early on in the development process and consider ways that unique design combined with effective marketing and branding can be used to create demand. It is often worth investing in specialist marketing and branding advice early in the design process – for a fresh approach to a product’s appearance as opposed to its capabilities.

Cynics take note: the original designs for the dual-cyclone Dyson appeared to be conventional and functional; it only really took off when it gained its unique look.

Those that do not start taking a wider, brand-conscious approach to product development and intellectual property protection are likely to find it harder to maintain their market share. Because, whatever the product involved, there will eventually be someone, somewhere, who will take this broader view.

Tom McGuire heads the innovation and technology group at Cambridge-based law firm Taylor Vinters.