Should you “brand” your prose?

The topic of trademarks and using specific brands in stories came up in several different classes this week. Being specific when we describe what a character does, wears, drives, or eats is important, but does your character really need to use Puffs tissues or eat M&Ms candies or chew Orbit gum? If you’ve succumbed to the notion that you need a “big name brand” so Hollywood will option movie rights to your Great American Novel, think again.

If you must use specific brands in your writing, properly use the trademark and respect companies’ brand names as you write. Coke is a trademark of the Coca-Cola Company and Kleenex is a registered trademark of the Kimberly-Clark Corporation. Trademarks should be capitalized and followed by the generic equivalent. If possible (which doesn’t work well in fiction) use the TM or RM superscript after the word). Better yet, replace it with the generic term: cola, soda pop, soft drink, facial tissue.

The exception to the initial cap rule is iPhone, iPad, iPod, iTunes and any future projects from Apple, Inc. following the “i-product” branding. Note that the “I” is lowercase and the “P” is uppercase. This models the trademark and should be copied in print.

Trademarks are legal property (just as your writing is copyrighted the moment you put words to paper). Trademark owners work hard to keep their brand names from falling into “common use.” This is what happened to “escalator”—originally a trademark of the Otis Elevator Company for the moving stairs they produced. Misuse of the trademark led to the term escalator falling into common use and it now means any brand of moving stairs. In Canada, Aspirin is still a brand name for acetylsalicylic acid while in America, the word is part of our common language referring to a type of pain reliever.

Companies can take legal action against publications for misuse of trademarks, so editors appreciate writers who carefully use trademarks properly—or avoid “branding” their prose altogether.