01 June 2006

The shape I'm in(to)

The body of a Gibson Les Paul. The headstock of a Fender Stratocaster or Telecaster. A bottle of Grant's Scotch or a Crown Lager. A Weis Mango and Cream ice cream bar. The cap of a Bic ballpoint pen.

Q: What do all these have in common? A: Each is the subject of a current shape trade mark in Australia.

And I'm glad, because apart from being a few of my favourite things, the very form of each of these classic designs deserves to be protected, and not principally because they are design icons (although they undoubtedly are). Rather, their owners deserve protection against imitators because of the effects of shape on consumers. A distinctive shape doesn't only identify a product to a consumer as being from a particular source; shape is also a highly salient (easily processed) cue to retrieval by the consumer of the network of associations in memory that actually constitutes the brand in his or her mind.

So when I see a guitar that's the shape of a Gibson Les Paul, I don't only identify it as a product from the Gibson Guitar Corporation. It calls to mind a distinctive sound, several genres of 70s rock that I associate with the guitar and its sound, songs and styles that sound better on a Les Paul, and even particular players (see Wikipedia's entry here for a far-from-comprehensive list). These recollections are also linked in my mind to quality assessments, judgments and emotional associations.

The shapes of a Coca-Cola bottle, the triangular prismatic packaging of Toblerone chocolate or a Turbuhaler asthma inhaler (also protected as shape trade marks) all tap into similar rich networks of brand associations... even if I don't know exactly who makes the products or owns the trade marks. In other words, while a shape trade mark is based on the idea of a shape being an indicator of origin, it may protect things that are a whole lot more valuable to a marketer than mere source identification.

Oh, and if you're wondering about the picture... it's yours truly about 30 years ago (but who's counting?) playing an unmistakeably shaped Gibson Les Paul. (In fact, it's a Les Paul copy (!) by Ibanez, one of the companies Gibson has sued in an attempt to protect the value of that very iconic shape. What teenager could afford a real Les Paul?) Makes me wish I had been able to protect my shape (apart from the Miller shirt, perhaps)!

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