It's All in the Name

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A company's name is valuable because the company invests time and money building its name into a brand. That's why it gets the name trademarked, so other companies can't encroach on its turf.

How many times do you say, "Let's go inline skating." No, you say, "Hey, wanna go Rollerblading?" Do that in print and Rollerblade Inc. will send you a letter asking you not to dilute its brand. The newest twist comes from home electronics cataloger Crutchfield, which wants Internet portal Excite to stop selling the "Crutchfield" keyword to its competitors (see story, page 21). A competitor is hoping to sell its home electronics through banner ads to Web browsers who type in the keyword "Crutchfield."

If you look at this as a trademark issue, it's letting companies use their competitors' names without permission. Excite, however, has taken the position that it's only selling advertising packages that are linked to keywords and that if Crutchfield didn't buy its keyword, it can sell it to someone else. This means Crutchfield would have to buy its keyword from Excite and every other Net portal, even though it already owns its name.

Companies and their agencies are looking for some guidance from the industry's trade groups, who would do well to support Yahoo's policy. It sells brand-name keywords but not to the trademark owners' competitors. This way, the search engine's hands don't get tied and the marketer's trademarks don't get diluted by the practice of selling keywords.

While AIM president Andy Sernovitz makes the argument that targeting a company's name as a keyword is akin to renting a competitor's subscriber list, there is at least one key difference: When you rent a subscriber list, you aren't diverting traffic that would otherwise be headed your competitor's way. Also, when you rent a competitor's list, the list owner gets rental money. Crutchfield gets no money from the sale of its keyword name to an online competitor.

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