Everyone knows the importance of making a good first impression, and that importance extends well beyond job interviews and Tinder dates. For your burgeoning business, a first impression might come in the form of a website visit or a quick online ad – formats where you only have a tiny moment to leave a positive mark.
That's where clear, concise, bold and memorable branding comes into play. Do you have a catchy business name already? Great. Now it's time to attach that name to a visual identity; to do that, you'll need a logo and a trademark for that logo.
Don't think of it in terms of a "trademark vs. a logo" – think of the two as partners, because your business's trademark and logo work in tandem to brand your business.
What's a Logo?
So what's a logo, anyway? Picture the golden arches of McDonald's. Or the apple-shaped icon on the back of your Macbook. Or the swoosh on your Nike Air Jordan Retros. These iconic symbols are all logos. A logo is simply a visual symbol – which may or may not include the business's name – used to identify your business. A designer usually creates it, and it commonly appears on signage, products, stationery, websites, uniforms, advertising, branding and marketing materials. Ideally, when someone sees your logo, they immediately associate it with your business – just like when you see those golden arches, you know there are burgers and fries ahead.
So it's fair to say that your business's logo is sort of its visual trademark, but that's just speaking in the vernacular sense; in the legal sense, a trademark is something else entirely.
What's a Trademark?
If you look closer at those iconic McDonald's, Apple and Nike logos, you might notice something else. Often, when you see their logos and those of other businesses in print, they are accompanied by a tiny "TM" or "R" to let you know that they have been trademarked or are intended to be trademarked.
A trademark legally protects your logo, signifying that it's the intellectual property of your company. You can also get a slogan, company name or any other phrases or design elements that identify your company trademark. By confirming legal ownership of your logo or branding elements with a trademark, you can prevent others from using them without your permission or ripping off your designs for their own use.
The United States Patent and Trademark Office issues trademarks, but to receive a trademark, the logo must be unique – you can't trademark a logo that's just a circle or a business name like "Restaurant," for instance. To make sure your company's logo meets the requirements, have a thorough search through the USPTO's trademark database online before submitting your application. Once you submit your application, the approval process usually takes between six-and-16 months, so start early if you can. Application fees range from about $225 to $600.
More to Know
The "TM" or "R" mark next to your logo conveys the message that you have a legal claim to the design. You don't need to include it alongside your logo; just holding the trademark itself is enough. But including the annotation sends a message to competitors or anyone who might be apt to use or copy your logo without permission.
If you plan on using different variations of your logo – such as different colors or shapes – you'll want to file for logo trademarks for each variation to maximize your legal ownership. Keep in mind that a trademark only protects the logo itself, not the product or service the logo is associated with. To protect a specific product, you'll need to get a patent from the USPTO.
Dan is a co-owner, founder and partner at two small businesses, both active in multimedia production in Los Angeles and Cincinnati. He's contributed what he's learned about small business over the past decade to publications such as Chron Careers, Fortune, AZ Central Small Business Tech, GlobalPost Careers, GoBankingRates.com, Motley Fool, MSN Money and others.