Taking advantage of a law passed last October, Coca-Cola this month won a trademark for its contour bottle. Other products requesting such patent protection include Vaseline petroleum jelly for the shape of its jar, Snickers candy bar for its label design, Dunlop car tires for their smell and AT&T for the sound of a jingle.
Since the law was passed, more than 400 patent applications have been submitted. Most are from fragrance makers such as Chanel and Calvin Klein trying to patent a brand's scent or bottle shape.
Coca-Cola was first in line for patent consideration as a result of a quest to have its bottle shape trademarked in the U.K. that began before the law was passed. At home, Coca-Cola's bottle is recognized by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office.
Before the U.K. law took effect, names and devices could be patented; colors could be patented but that was more difficult. The law was changed to comply with new European Community directives seeking to standardize patent procedures.
Patent requests for names and devices still account for 99% of all U.K. applications, said Norman Harkness, Patent Office hearing officer.
The Financial Times, which is published on pink paper, has applied for a pink-newspaper trademark. And Dunlop tire marketer S.P. Tyres U.K. has received preliminary approval on a patent request for rose-scented car tires.
"We were told by car manufacturers that the spare tire can leave a bad odor in a car, so we came up with this idea. It is intended for the spare tire in the [trunk] of the car."
But the floral tires aren't being produced because carmakers haven't ordered any.
A marketer isn't required to submit the brand name with a request for a patent. But some of the more obvious requests can be deciphered. Unilever is trying to patent the Vaseline jar's easily recognizable shape. And Mars U.K. has submitted an application for the following design: "the mark consists of labels or packaging having a brown background, bearing a slanted white rectangle edged in red, in which the product name or brand name appears in blue letters." Candy junkies will recognize the description as that of a Snickers wrapper.
Approval of an application for a trademark based on shape, sound, smell or color isn't guaranteed, and many are likely to be rejected. Molkerei Alois Muller has applied to register its yogurt container with separate sections for fruit and yogurt, but that request could fail because other companies have similar containers.
Another application that appears doomed is from Chanel, seeking to patent the smell of Chanel No. 5. The popular fragrance is described in the application as "the scent of aldehydic-floral fragrance product, with an aldehydic top note, from aldehydes, bergamot, lemon and neroli; an elegant floral middle note, from jasmine, rose, lily of the valley, orris and ylang-ylang; and a sensual feminine base note, from sandal, cedar, vanilla, amber, civet and musk."
"The likelihood is that we won't accept the application," Mr. Harkness said. "It is very difficult to see how you would get Chanel No. 5 if you put those ingredients together."
Color is also emerging as an important marketing element in the development of global brands. In the U.S. earlier this year, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that marketers are now permitted to trademark colors that are distinctively associated with their brands. Qualitex Co. won protection for the green-gold color of its dry-cleaning press pads.
The examples of marketers that could benefit, or need to protect themselves, by trademarking their colors are virtually endless, but a few already have taken that step, including Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp. for its pink Fiberglas insulation.
Another marketer likely to trademark its piece of the spectrum is Tiffany & Co. Executives at Tiffany agency McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York, said the client is already starting to use its trademark Tiffany blue box in advertising worldwide.
Joe Mandese in New York contributed to this story.