Some people think that GE lost a good trademark opportunity when they announced their new three-company structure. Calling the new aerospace division “GE Aerospace” or the healthcare division “GE Healthcare” may just feel like they didn’t put in the effort. Maybe you expected more from a company which was, at least at the beginning of this century, often revered as the best-managed business in the world. Of the three new GE enterprises, only one presents a newly-branded moniker: “GE Vernova.” Critics will say that by going with the trademarks “Aerospace,” “HealthCare,” and “Vernova” (for renewable energy), GE had given up.
I think the names are brilliant. Why change just for change’s sake? They took one of the strongest, most valued, longest-tenured trademarks in America – and decided not to mess around with it. Are people forgetting that “GE Aerospace” and “GE Healthcare” each include the mark “GE?” And that the new kid, “GE Vernova,” also retains “GE,” while making a valiant effort to manufacture a new mark which they hope also suggests “green” and “new”? (GE came right out and said so.)
Adopting a new worldwide trademark is a gargantuan task. A company like GE has to try to clear new rights all around the world, literally in every one of the 170 countries in which they say they are doing business. In this process, names are often already taken by companies – some famous and others small – in other countries. There are also possible issues with translation or transliteration, where the name of a new proposed trademark may bump into another company’s similar use, or even worse – may have certain local meanings or connotations that are negative. This process – times three new names – is an enormously complex, costly, time-intensive exercise.
When you choose to stick with the “GE” mark as a constituent part of a new mark, all of those issues go away. Even where you mix the “GE” mark with a generic term, like “Aerospace” for aerospace products, the possibilities for conflict sink to the point of near-evaporation.
By the way, the U.S. Trademark Office records show that there were at least two “Vernova” trademark registrations back toward the beginning of the century; one company owned two registered “Vernova” marks, one for electromechanical machines for use in evaluating one or more individual’s strength, cardiovascular health, and range of motion, and the other for medical testing, namely, providing the administration of medical evaluations related to an individual’s strength, cardiovascular health, and range of motion provided at remote locations. Both of these were cancelled a decade ago for failure by their owners to prove ongoing use in commerce.
Getting assurance that nobody has used a mark worldwide, in any capacity, is darn near impossible. It’s also close to impossible to know for certain if anyone else has ever used a word or phrase in at least some capacity over the years. When a big company like GE adopts a mark, even if not for its primary business, that company can become the target of some small user of some similar mark which says its name has been stolen by the giant.
Companies have to deal with that issue all the time. Many of the small guys presume that wealthy global companies will quickly throw a large amount of money at them, just to avoid conflict. Alert: this does not usually happen. Unless somebody really messed up and there is a true likelihood of conflict (or risk of unbearably bad PR), the companies are not going to throw money around, even less so when the owner of a bait and tackle shop complains about another company which sells jet engine parts.
It probably took some courage for GE to go to this rebranding exercise and wind up essentially right where they started – with “GE.” Somewhere in the process – maybe even from the start – someone said, “wait a minute, we have one of the strongest, oldest brands in the world, why would we want to change it?”
Technically, the “GE” brand is owned by one of the three companies, and licensed to the others. This is common. It is a good arrangement for legal purposes, particularly in the United States, where there should not be more than one owner of the mark, especially if multiple companies use the same trademark; this is true even where the companies are all friendly to one another. Having multiple owners of one mark leaves the door ajar for some third parties to jump in and start their own use down the road. Best to have only a single legal owner that licenses out the mark to selected users. There may be a host of other business and financial reasons – none related to trademark law – for this type of arrangement, as well.
People love to dream up names. Dreaming is the easy part. Finding a good candidate, from a marketing, business and legal point of view, is difficult. The GE situation called for something bold, new and different. I think GE delivered. “GE Aerospace” is not exactly “GE We Bring Good Things to Life.” But in a way, it is. Because by retaining the “GE” name across the board, that sense of heritage inspired in people who remember that slogan (and perhaps people from different eras who remember different slogans) still bring all of that to the table, while avoiding the need to open up a global inquiry that rivals a congressional investigation in scope.
Worldwide branding projects can take years to clear, and then more years to actually complete the process, securing registered trademarks that can be protected. GE’s move sidesteps all of that.