When someone mentions Play-Doh, what is the first thing you think of? Is it those flexible yellow containers? Perhaps it is the smooth and squishy texture of the putty? More likely though, you are probably thinking, nay, smelling, Play-Doh’s unmistakable scent. Play-Doh describes its scent best as “the combination of a sweet, slightly musky, vanilla-like fragrance, with slight overtones of cherry, and the natural smell of salted, wheat-based dough.” If you still can’t imagine its scent, put down your device, go find the closest toy store and pop open a tub of Play-Doh. We’ll wait.
In short, Play-Doh arguably has one of the most recognizable scents and n
ow Hasbro (Play-Doh’s owner), is seeking to trademark its distinct scent. Sound simple? Not quite.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office defines a trademark or service mark as “any word, name, symbol, device, or any combination, used or intended to be used to identify and distinguish the goods/services of one seller or provider from those of others, and to indicate the source of the goods/services.” Think Google’s logo or the golden arches of McDonalds. More often than not, trademarks are tangible words or symbols branding a product or service. It gets a bit more complicated when you attempt to protect something intangible, like a scent.
There are two types of registrations: Principal and Supplemental. A Principal Registration is what Play-Doh has applied for and affords the most protection for a mark, including presumption of ownership in the event of litigation and the right to exclusive use of the mark. To qualify for the Principal Register, the mark must have achieved “secondary meaning.” That is, consumers must associate the mark with the particular product or service. So, again, think about the McDonalds arches. However, it is hard to deny that Play-Doh’s scent achieves similar distinctive brand recognition.
A Supplemental Registration, on the other hand, functions more as a holding place for a mark while it gains distinctiveness. Although it does not provide the same security as Principal Registration, the Supplemental Register is helpful in preventing others from registering their mark on either the principal or supplemental registers and is inherently easier to accomplish because, unlike the Principal Register, there is no opposition phase for others to attempt to block the mark.
Only a handful of other scent-based registrations exist. The first scent-based trademark was issued in 1991 for the scent of a line of embroidery thread and yarn. That’s right – yarn. In 2013, Verizon Wireless attempted to trademark the perfume it s
prays in its stores; however, it was unsuccessful in achieving principal registration because many other companies similarly use scents to create a general ambiance in stores. Ultimately, Verizon was able to achieve a downgraded registration onto the Supplemental Register.
Others have attempted to trademark their scents with limited success, largely because it is difficult for scents to pass the “functionality test.” Put simply, a mark must not serve any practical function of the product or service other than to identify and distinguish it. That is why perfumes and air fresheners often fail to receive principal registration because the product is inherently designed for the functional purpose of smelling.
Whether Play-Doh will be successful in achieving its registration is to be determined. Nevertheless, as markets become increasingly more crowded, we will likely see more companies turning to scents as a method of branding and distinguishing their products.