The line between brand language and a lawsuit

by Sophie Cole

image overlay

To what extent do communication professionals need to worry about Taylor Swift’s latest lawsuit against Microsoft?

One of the leading weapons in a marketer’s arsenal is brand identity – where brand language plays a pivotal role. And it’s not just companies that are tapping into this, as superstars of the music, film and modelling worlds are curating strong personal brands to set them apart from the unstoppable tide of wannabes.
Taylor Swift is a great example of this. The pop megastar is a tireless advocate for creative integrity, but her 2017 album isn’t the only questionable Reputation now associated with her brand. What started as a stance against unfair practices in the music industry has become a questionably ruthless pursuit of everyone who uses her brand without permission.

But the news that she is attempting legal action against Microsoft poses a question. How concerned should those in the world of communications be about the tricky matter of intellectual property? And how can we make sure our creative fruits are protected?

David turns Goliath

In 2014 Taylor made a stance against unfair royalties for musicians when she removed all of her music from the popular music streaming site, Spotify. The move was met with praise, as she stood up for smaller musicians against a large corporation. Recently, though, her fierce brand protection has raised eyebrows.
Earlier this month, the singer made a legal move against Microsoft, claiming the name of its chatbot, ‘Tay’, was too similar to her own and could be falsely associated with her. Once an underdog (like David in the biblical tale), Swift has transitioned into the role of big brand (or Goliath, for the sake of the metaphor).

Avoid falling victim to a Goliath

Taylor Swift vs Microsoft could be worrying for brand owners. The case demonstrates that a plagiarism lawsuit can be raised out of the blue from someone not even in your industry, citing the most tenuous links to your own ideas.
But when do generic phrases or names become privately owned? When developing a new creative idea, it may help to consider the following.
Don’t be generic
We all work from the same toolbox (the English dictionary), but it’s the tools we choose to use that makes what we say unique. Creativity can come from unusual word or phrase pairings, missing words, and alternative spellings. Take Taylor’s trademarked phrase “nice to meet you, where you been”.
The juxtaposition of the two phrases, insinuating a first meeting followed by a greeting of familiarity, and the missing word ‘have’ creates a distinct phrase. Be careful not to throw grammar and spelling out the window completely, though, or you’ll just look like you don’t know what you’re doing.
Check your creations with a trademarks lawyer
It’s worth it – you don’t want to be blindsided when you find out your incredible idea already belongs to someone else.
Less is more
It is important not to lose the key messages amongst too many gimmicky phrases or spellings. Instead, build a few key phrases and fully incorporate these into your brand and tone of voice.

Can brand protection go too far?

Taylor hasn’t only been making legal moves against big companies – even her fans have come under fire. Cease and desist letters were reportedly sent to young Etsy sellers for producing homemade fan-art celebrating Swifts songs. And although she’s well within her rights to protect her own work, this ruthless pursuit of brand protection is likely to be more harmful to her brand in the long run. If everything the audience engages with comes at a price, many may feel excluded instead of part of a strong community and take their support elsewhere.
Like music fans, customers like to feel like they are part of something bigger, no matter how small their contribution. Inhibiting a customer from fully interacting with the brand by imposing too many paywalls may deter future interactions and stop you building potentially meaningful connections.

Avoid becoming a Goliath

Protecting your trademarked content is good, but it’s important to foster a customer-inclusive, rather than exclusive, brand experience. Encourage engagement among your customer base that extends beyond just buying your products and interact with your customers even when they’re not making a purchase. Consider using key phrases as hashtags, too, to let customers interact with your brand in a way that gives you ownership.

So what’s the takeaway?

While legal brand protection is important, it shouldn’t be approached as if you’re defending your country from invasion. Take legal action where appropriate, but consider friendlier interactions where you can (see Netflix’s letter to a bar owner for a lesson in how to do this). Taylor Swift’s questionable approach might do more harm than good in the long run.

A note about the authors

This piece was written by our team of talented (and often opinionated) writers. To meet some of our writers, take a look at our team page.
Photo credit: By Chaz McGregor on Unsplash

Sign up to hear from us