Coke is trying to get dibs on nothing. Or more specifically “zero.”
As in Coke Zero. As in the zero-calorie soft drink that some men apparently feel better about drinking in part because it doesn’t include the word “diet.” See how words twist us around?
So, for more than a decade, the soft drink Goliath has been trying to win trademark rights not only to the name Coke Zero but also, incredibly, to the word “zero,” at least as it relates to soft drinks.
It might get a decision from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office this summer, according to a Wall Street Journal story.
We’ve heard this kind of thing before with companies trying to control use of common words.
But it still sounds goofy in this context. After all, we’re not talking about a common word that was plucked for an uncommon use, such as “Apple” to describe a computer or “Delta” to describe an airline.
I understand Coke’s thinking. It’s got a lot of money wrapped up in this; it doesn’t want to risk that. Of course, nobody forced it to use a number for a product name.
The company already lost trademark attempts over “zero” in Canada and the United Kingdom.
If Coke also loses in the U.S., it won’t be able to throw a trademark hammerlock on rivals like Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, which also likes using “zero.” If Coke wins, it could protect Coke Zero, its best soft drink launch in decades and one that is actually growing stronger, unlike Diet Coke which has been losing ground.
But I found Coke doesn’t have as much of a hold on nothing as they would have us believe.
I checked with a professor who specializes in such issues.
Tim Holbrook of Emory University thinks Coke has a decent shot at winning. But it’s not altogether clear.
Numbers can be trademarked in some situations, he said. But Coke didn’t pick a number out of the blue. It chose one that refers to the absence of calories.
It’s harder to win trademark protection for a word that is descriptive (like the word “beer” for the name of a beer) than it is for one that is merely suggestive and requires a further leap in thinking, he said.
So, when you hear the word “zero” in connection with a drink, do you immediately know it means zero calories or does it just sort of hint in that direction?
“It’s a strange bit of line drawing,” Holbrook acknowledged.
Matt Kempner: email@example.com.