An important tip frequently made in guides to starting your own business is that it’s smart to land on the right name the first time, because it can be hard to change. There are of course branding questions, and concerns about losing the equity that you may have built, but there is an equally salient point about choosing a name that you can use for intellectual property purposes because, again, it’s hard to make changes.
The Cleveland baseball team has spent the better part of the last year learning those lessons the hard way, through some fault of their own. It’s true that current ownership didn’t name the team, nor did they have any involvement with the club at the time, but it’s also true that the problematic nature of the name isn’t some new revelation, despite any protestations to the contrary. And now they’re up against a public commitment to change the name by next year, facing a unique set of IP challenges.
From Jenna Ciccotelli at Bleacher Report comes a story about how the franchise is issuing challenges to a series of trademark filings for names that are mooted to be potential candidates for the team rebrand: Natives, Foresters, Warriors, Guardians, Cleveland Baseball Club, Heroes and Squires. It’s hard to imagine any of these names actually being among the finalists, mostly because “Natives” would simply shift from one offensive name to another, and the rest are frankly bad. But it’s the due diligence that a team has to do in keeping its options open when undertaking a broad search for a new identity.
I’d argue that the Cleveland team’s situation is sui generis, and perhaps hard to take a specific lesson from; few businesses are as old as the oldest baseball teams, and perhaps nothing inspires the passion and devotion that professional sports franchises do in those who care about their fortunes. There’s also hopefully far less chance these days that someone would take the name of a group of people or broad stereotypes to incorporate into their name and branding, although never say never on that point. But that doesn’t mean that businesses can’t run into their own trademark issues or rebranding crises.
The lesson, then, is to be smart about how you go about landing on a name. It’s easy to stumble upon something clever in the early stages, and perhaps natural to want a name to make the whole endeavor feel more real. Just bear in mind that trademarks exist, and that your clever idea isn’t necessarily unique to you.