When the consumer getting the mark all wrong might be good for the brand holder

Using a foreign language word as a trademark is often fraught with risk. After all, if the purpose of a mark is to provide an unequivocal marketing message while serving as a badge of origin, the last thing that such a mark should have happen is to be misapprehended. The last thing, that is, except when the misapprehension works to the benefit of the brand.

Consider this Kat’s recent moment of branding epiphany, when he realized that, for years, he may have completely misunderstand the meaning of the “Caffè Nero” mark, even if his apparent confusion redounded to the benefit of the brand holder.

This Kat’s wont when visiting London, in pre-Corona times, was to meet colleagues at one of the Caffè Nero locations (his favorite being the one on High Holborn near Chancery Lane). He likes the coffee and the ambience. But what initially attracted him to Caffè Nero was what he perceived as the branding of Italian-style coffee by an edgy invocation of one of ancient Rome’s most notorious emperors. “This is so much cooler than, say, Starbucks or Costa, turning Nero into a brand”, he said to himself, “why not give them a try?”

Just so Kat readers get a sense of how edgy Nero was, recall his sordid story. Having ruled Rome between 54 AD and 68 AD, his litany included the murder of his mother, Agrippina the Younger ("Smite [first] my womb", she implored as she was being killed, being that part of her body that had given birth to so "abominable a son") and of his pregnant wife Poppaea. He summarily disposed of anyone whom he perceived as disloyal or critical, beginning with the poisoning of Britannicus (who was all of 13 years old) , being Nero’s greatest threat to the throne, and disposing of his erstwhile tutor, the Stoic philosopher Seneca.

If this was not enough, Nero is forever associated with the Great Fire of Rome in 64 AD. Did he directly cause it (probably not), but did he fiddle while Rome burned (maybe “yes”, as was known to play string instruments incessantly). Add to all of this was his fiscal profligacy, and enough was enough; in 68 AD, Nero was “invited” to commit suicide (with a large dose of help from his friends). On the cusp of death, he proclaimed: “What an artist dies in me”, reminding us of the darkest regions where art meets depravity.

Well, it turns out that whatever the “Caffè Nero” mark is meant to convey, branding edginess, Italian style, was apparently not at the top of the list, if at all. Recently, this Kat came to understand that the name “Caffè Nero” apparently has nothing to with the infamous emperor, but something more prosaic—it means “black coffee” in Italian, a language for this Kat has no linguistic competence.

But given the choice of selecting a coffee house called “Black Coffee”, this Kat would likely have said to himself— “how boring”. Going on, he would have observed—"If that is the best they can come up with as a name, one wonders what to expect from their coffee.” Under such circumstances, he would likely have selected an alternative site to share coffee and conversation. In retrospect, as a coffee product, this Kat had chosen the coffee house for the right reasons. But as a consumer processing branding information, he had gotten it all wrong.

What does this little episode in apparent mistaken branding identity teach us about trademarks? First, words in a foreign language can have a psychological impact on consumers, whatever the words mean. This is especially so, when national characteristics associated with the language are viewed as desirable under the circumstances (think “Italian coffee”).

Second, even the most savvy branding professional may not fully comprehend how the brand will be perceived by consumers. This Kat saw only edginess, no matter how unintentional on the part of the brand holder, it would seem, and he built from that an entire psychological edifice on which to make a long-term consumer choice.

Third, the same mark and brand can have multiple, radically different meanings. How often has this Kat found himself being required by a trademark examiner to explain why a mark is not descriptive. If appropriate, this Kat will point to an alternative, clearly non-descriptive meaning for the term. Sometimes he succeeds, while other times the claim is rejected, without the underlying principle for the decision being made clear.

What should prevail: the descriptive or distinctive meaning? Can we be so certain that even an arguably descriptive term is in fact viewed otherwise by a consumer? It would seem that we still have much to learn from cognitive psychology and how branding terms are actually processed by consumers.

By Neil Wilkof

Picture on left by LouiseParks 133 and is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
When the consumer getting the mark all wrong might be good for the brand holder  When the consumer getting the mark all wrong might be good for the brand holder Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Sunday, June 28, 2020 Rating: 5


  1. I hope we might meet for coffee in London before Long, Neil, but at a coffee bar that pays (and has no history of avoiding paying) UK corporation tax, however good Nero's coffee might be. I never made the connection with Rome, but I do use the trade mark as an example of the sort of problem EU trade mark owners can run into: NERO is 100 per cent descriptive of water, in Greek, and they do sell their own brand bottled water. Or they did when last I looked, pre-lockdown!

  2. Er, yes, the Italian for "Nero" (the emperor) is "Nerone". Not the sort of chap to name a coffe shop after. So, linguistic competence wanting in Latin as well.
    Must be a quiet day at the Kattery. ;)


All comments must be moderated by a member of the IPKat team before they appear on the blog. Comments will not be allowed if the contravene the IPKat policy that readers' comments should not be obscene or defamatory; they should not consist of ad hominem attacks on members of the blog team or other comment-posters and they should make a constructive contribution to the discussion of the post on which they purport to comment.

It is also the IPKat policy that comments should not be made completely anonymously, and users should use a consistent name or pseudonym (which should not itself be defamatory or obscene, or that of another real person), either in the "identity" field, or at the beginning of the comment. Current practice is to, however, allow a limited number of comments that contravene this policy, provided that the comment has a high degree of relevance and the comment chain does not become too difficult to follow.

Learn more here: http://ipkitten.blogspot.com/p/want-to-complain.html

Powered by Blogger.