Distinctive vs. Generic Trademark Brand Names

A generic term can’t be a trademark for your company’s goods. Your need to use a distinctive term instead. Find out the differences between distinctive and generic terms in this guide.


If you’re planning to use a brand name for your business, it has to be distinctive. It’s not only because a less unique term or brand name may already be in use. The fact is, a generic term cannot be protected and can never work as a trademark. Basically, once a word or term becomes generic, no one can use it for trademark purposes.


What’s a Generic Term?

A generic term is a popular or commonly used name or phrase used for a particular type of product.

Examples include:

  • “PC” for personal computers
  • “Sedan” for cars
  • “Banana” for fruits

You can’t use these generic terms as your company’s trademark. They’re so commonly used that any company can use them.

You also normally can’t use:

  • Descriptive terms
  • Surnames
  • Geographic names

The main exception is when these terms have achieved distinctiveness through long-term use. For example, Ford may be a common surname, but you can’t use it for your trademark since it’s already used by the Ford automotive company. It doesn’t matter if your name is also Ford.


The same goes if your name is McDonald, Cartier, or Lagerfeld.


How Can a Term Become Distinctive?

Here are some types of inherently distinctive trademark names:



An arbitrary brand name is when you set a commonly used word for your trademark, but it bears no obvious relation to the type of goods you’re selling.

One of the most famous examples here is the Apple brand name, which becomes distinctive because it’s used for computers. Another example is Ivory soap.


Coined Words

These are fanciful words that didn’t exist before you came up with it. A lot of brand names, like Microsoft, Google, and Rolex are of this type.


Suggestive Names

This is when the brand name indicates the quality or nature of the goods. The name is suggestive and not explicit at all.

One example here is Coppertone, which is the brand name of an American sunscreen.



This is more explicit, as it describes the qualities or ingredients of the goods or services.

You have brand names like The Container Store, General Motors, Toys R Us, and Bank of America. You immediately get a sense of what the products are all about.



Even when you’re trying to avoid generic terms, you can still have trouble finding a unique brand name for your company. You’ll be surprised at how often you can come up with a clever name for your brand, only to find that it’s already in use. That’s why you have to check thoroughly that your company brand name is actually unique before you submit for a trademark application!


If you need to get professional help for the trademark application, please contact us for free consulation. We are a Hong Kong Patent Application Grant authorised patent agent and offer international trademark registration.


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Hong Kong Patent Application Grant Authorised Patent Agent

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