Why is this Kat laughing (hint: it's all about his blue shirt)?

This Kat is usually the reticent type, especially when a camera is pointed in his direction. But this post is the rare exception. To the right, Kat readers will find his picture, proudly wearing his favorite blue shirt. What is this all about? Read on.

Earlier this week, this Kat was walking from his office to a meeting site about 25 minutes away. His path took him along the perimeter of a large outdoor bus terminal in Tel-Aviv, home to tens of different lines run by several different companies. About to leave the terminal area, a rather desperate- looking woman approached this Kat and sheepishly asked, “Do you know where I can catch the number 171 bus line”?

This Kat has been asked a lot of questions during his life, but this was a new one for him. He looked left and right. On each side there was a digital time schedule for buses serving the terminal; neither schedule showed any information for the number 171. “But”, thought this Kat, “the woman was looking at these same digital schedules, so she knew that there was no information about the number 171. So why on earth was she asking me the question”?

And so this Kat replied to her that he did not know, to which she answered:
“Well, you obviously work for the Egged bus company. Everyone knows that their drivers wear a blue shirt just like yours. I thought that you would know.”
There it was: she reckoned that because of the blue shirt, this Kat was a bus driver for the Egged company. He explained to her -- “No, I don’t work for the bus company”. We then had a collective good laugh and parted ways. Continuing on to his destination, but ever the diligent trademark practitioner, this Kat asked himself: “How can we make sense of that episode in terms of the role played by the color blue.” Here are this Kat’s thoughts.

First, there is the issue of a single color as being able to function in a trademark capacity. He thought of the hoary color depletion” theory, whereby it is thought undesirable to grant a trademark monopoly in a single color, since there are only a small number of available colors. But reality is more complex than that: there are circumstances where the nature of use of the color has conferred upon it acquired distinctiveness of some sort.

But exactly what “sort” is it? In fact, the color “blue” is not used by the Egged bus company to identify its services. Rather, the company widely uses the color “green”, both on its buses and in its advertising. True, the color “green” evokes environmental sensibilities, but the color has also come to be identified with the company and its services. Still, it would be a stretch to conclude that the color “green” enjoys the same distinctive power as, say, the color “yellow” enjoyed for many years in connection with Kodak.

More to the point, the color at issue is "blue" and not "green". It would seem that for this company, there are not one but two colors that have come to be identified with it. But the role of the color “blue” is more nuanced than that of “green”. The color “blue” is associated only with the shirts worn by employees, primarily its drivers. From that perspective, as a form of uniform dress, while not serving any identify function in the trademark sense, it provides a sense of professionalism and belonging among its employees.

But it also communicates to the public that people wearing a shirt of this color are in some way connected with the bus company. As such, the color “blue” on the shirts evokes certain psychological characteristics among the public that remind this Kat, at least at first glance, of the components of brand equity.

As David Aaker famously informed us nearly 30 years ago, brand equity consists of: (i) brand loyalty; (ii) brand awareness; (iii) perceived brand quality; and (iv) brand associations. But while some of these features seem to have been lurking behind the motivation for the woman’s inquiry, it would not be accurate to conclude that the color “blue” as worn on the shirts of Egged employees serves as a brand. Rather, it seems to serve as a sui generis source indicator for possible information.

If so, there is one additional aspect regarding its sui generis nature that merits attention, namely, the centrality of place and circumstance. If this Kat, wearing the same blue shirt, had encountered the woman in another situation, even a few hundred yards beyond the open-air terminal, she likely would not have stopped him to ask a question about a bus line. Unlike a proper mark that preserves it source-identification role across multiple physical settings, the information-provision function embodied in the blue shirt is circumscribed in time and space.

Such a transitory event of a sign serving as a source of information, a sort of Snapchat effect, defies easy categorization. Perhaps the most that can be said is that it is part of a broader ecosystem of the use of signs in day-by-day activity, which we are still trying to map in its entirety.

To all Kat readers in the U.S., IPKat wishes you a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday season.

By Neil Wilkof

Photo on upper right courtesy of Mrs. Kat.

Photo in the middle from www.egged.co.il.

Photo on the lower left is by Grauesel and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Why is this Kat laughing (hint: it's all about his blue shirt)? Why is this Kat laughing (hint: it's all about his blue shirt)? Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Friday, November 23, 2018 Rating: 5

1 comment:

  1. BTW, blue shirts were the distinctive mark of the FDJ, the East German communist youth organization, and they also provided their nickname, "Blauhemden". I suspect the vivid colour was the product of an azo dye, which I hope wasn't too toxic.

    A certain colour trademark case was mentioned here years ago, which I can't retrace it just now. IIRC, when I checked it out, I discovered that the applicant had filed for several marks defining essentially the same hue but in different colour systems (CIE, RAL, etc.), just to make things more complicated. It would be time to inject some science into that field, e.g., by making reference to MacAdam ellipses for deciding how different two colours are.


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