Updated: Sep 29, 2018
A mark must be distinctive to serve as a trademark. Marks fall into one of four categories, based on their relationship to the underlying product: (1) arbitrary or fanciful, (2) suggestive, (3) descriptive, or (4) generic. The legal protection afforded a particular trademark will depend upon which category it falls within.
Arbitrary or Fanciful Marks
An arbitrary or fanciful mark bears no logical relationship to the underlying product. A fanciful trademark only has a meaning when used in relation to a specific product. For this reason, fanciful marks are the strongest type of trademarks. For example, “Dell”, Pepsi, and “Clorox” bear no inherent relationship to their underlying products – computers, soda, and bleach. Arbitrary or fanciful marks are inherently distinctive -- i.e. capable of identifying an underlying product -- and are given a high degree of protection.
A suggestive mark suggests a characteristic of the underlying good. For example, the words "Microsoft" and “Android” are suggestive of microcomputer software and artificially intelligent user interactive software, but do not specifically describe the underlying product. They require consumers to exercise imagination to connect the mark with the product. At the same time, however, the word is not totally unrelated to the underlying product. Like arbitrary or fanciful marks, suggestive marks are inherently distinctive and are given a high degree of protection.
A descriptive mark directly describes, rather than suggests, a characteristic or quality of the underlying product (e.g. its color, odor, function, dimensions, or ingredients). For example, "World’s Best Bagels," "Creamy Yogurt," and "The Nashville Network" all describe some aspect of the underlying product or service. They describe something about the product. Unlike arbitrary or suggestive marks, descriptive marks are not inherently distinctive and are protected only if they have acquired "secondary meaning."
A generic mark describes the general category of the product. For example, the term "Computer" is a generic term for computer equipment. Generic marks are entitled to no protection under trademark law. Thus, a manufacturer selling "Computer" brand computers would have no exclusive right to use that term with respect to that product. Generic terms are not protected by trademark law because they are simply too useful for identifying a particular product. Giving a single manufacturer control over use of the term would give that manufacturer too great a competitive advantage. .