Protection and promotion of your brand
We all know the key role that your brand plays in building awareness of your practice with your patients, but how do you maximise and protect its value?
Your brand is the unique and recognisable identity which communicates the quality and values of your practice to your patients, and helps you stand out against your competitors. This identity is built from several components. Some of these are obvious, such as your logo, but other parts can be more difficult to define. For example, your practice’s reputation is a key factor in attracting new patients and retaining current ones. However, while this is predominately based on your patients’ perception of the service they receive, it can also be shaped by the influence of online reviews and comments on social media.
Whatever the mix of factors that combine to build your brand, as its most recognisable element, your practice name will sit at its core. To preserve the value of your practice name, you should ensure that you obtain appropriate protection for it and keep this protection properly maintained and managed.
In this article, we will outline the steps to take, and the issues you should consider, to do this.
Undoubtedly, obtaining a registered trademark for your practice name is the most crucial step to take, as the wide scope of rights it grants make it a powerful tool in the protection of your brand. However, while your practice name is the most obvious candidate for registration, trademarks have been registered for shapes, colours, sounds and even smells. You should consider all elements of your brand, to identify any distinguishing elements (such as logos or straplines) that you may also consider for trademark registration. This is particularly important if you own multiple dental practices which all operate under the same brand.
A UK trademark is obtained by making an application to UK Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO). The UKIPO will examine the proposed trademark to assess if it is suitable for registration.
If the UKIPO rejects your application (and you are unable to overcome its objections), or the owner of a conflicting trademark successfully opposes it, then your application will not be granted. However, if there are no objections raised or opposition brought (or you are able to overcome any that are) your application will proceed, and your trademark will be registered. This registration will last for 10 years initially, but registration may be renewable for successive ten-year periods. Provided it is put to use and any fees are paid, a trademark can be renewed indefinitely. Indeed, the first UK trademark, for the ‘Bass Triangle’, was registered in 1876 and is still in force today.
The benefit of obtaining registration is that owning a registered trademark gives you the exclusive right to use it. Infringement occurs when someone uses a ‘sign’ (such as their brand name) which is identical to your registered trademark, for a use that your trademark is registered for. Your rights will also be infringed when someone:
- uses a sign that is the same as your registered trademark, for a use that is similar to its registered use, or
- uses a sign that is similar to your registered trademark for its registered use, or for a similar use;
and in both cases, where the use may cause confusion on the part of the public. In addition, a person will infringe a registered trademark which has a reputation in the UK, if they use a sign that takes unfair advantage of, or is detrimental to, the distinctive character or the registered trademark, even if the use is distinct from the trademark’s registered use.
Where infringement of your registered trademark occurs, you may obtain an injunction to prevent the infringement continuing and claim damages from the infringer as compensation, or require that they account to you for their profits generated from their infringing use. It is crucial to take swift enforcement action against any infringer. This not only defends your position in the market, by preventing confusion amongst your patients, but also protects the value of your trademark, as continued use by infringers can lead to it losing the ability to distinguish your brand, meaning it ceases to remain registrable.
However, in communicating with someone who you feel is infringing your trademark, you need to take care not to make a ‘groundless threat’ of infringement action, as doing so can expose you and your practice to legal action and the risk of being found liable to pay damages for loss resulting from your threat. This is a complex area of law, and typically no more than a notification of your registered trademark should be given, without you having obtained professional legal advice.
You will also need to take prompt action against any conflicting trademarks that the UKIPO notifies you have been put forward for registration, as preventing registration is far more effective and cheaper than bringing an action for infringement further down the line.
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