Image: Vetements

“British asset manager Standard Life Aberdeen is changing its name to ‘ABRDN PLC,’ abandoning the letter ‘e’ in phone-text fashion as part of a plan to modernize its brand,” Reuters reported on Monday. More than merely an attempt to appear more modern, “the Edinburgh-headquartered company said the name change would also allow it to own digital assets, such as apps and websites, without confusion with the city of Aberdeen.” The newly-announced, vowel-devoid name – which is still pronounced as “Aberdeen” – has resulted in amusement and criticism on social media, with users poking fun at the rebrand, while Manchester Metropolitan University linguistics professor Rob Drummond told the Guardian that “it looks like older people desperately trying to sound cool.”

Interestingly, ABRDN’s oddly-spelled new name is not the first of such moves. As we noticed a couple of years ago, a growing number of new – or newly revamped – fashion companies were rolling out unusual branding for one reason or another, with brands, such as Kassl, CQY (pronounced coy), SVNR (pronounced souvenir), SLVRLAKE, YSTRDYS TMRRW, and GFT, popping up on popular e-commerce sites sans certain vowels. This may be a testament to the fact that the number of brand names and corresponding social media handles, domain names, etc., are somewhat finite, and as some have argued, potentially running out.

By adopting these arguably distinctive monikers, brands may be able achieve a few things: they potentially stand to avoid running into confusingly similar trademarks that are already in use, which would likely prevent them from amassing trademark rights of their own. At the same time, and in an even more practical sense, the adoption of unused names – no matter how unconventional – provides new brands with the chance to secure the valuable social media handles and domain names of their choice, which might otherwise be difficult to obtain since so many of these assets have, in fact, already been claimed.

While the ABRDN name change is “likely to leave investors feeling dazed and confused,” Laith Khalaf, financial analyst at fund platform AJ Bell told Reuters, a lack of certain vowels has not stopped the success of companies like “Flickr, Scribd, Grindr and Tumblr,” the Guardian asserted. Nike’s stylization of the word sneakers for its widely-used SNKRS app also comes to mind. The Guardian pointed to potential upsides for ABRDN (and others) beyond a lack of confusion with the Scottish city of the same name: “Brands dropping vowels could be about encouraging people to scratch their head and think what the word was,” per Calbert Graham, a senior research associate at the University of Cambridge. If that is “the effect that the company is aiming for, [then such a] rebranding exercise would be rather clever.”

Meanwhile, another potential rebrand may quietly be playing out elsewhere in the market for fashion brand Vetements, which has been filing trademark applications over the past year for its name without the vowels. Zurich, Switzerland-headquartered Vetements Group AG filed upwards of 25 different trademark applications for registration between April 2020 and February 2021 with intellectual property offices in the U.S., Italy, Singapore, the European Union, and Switzerland, among other places, for VTMNTS for use on everything from garments and accessories, and retail store services to fragrances, eyewear, and jewelry. 

The 7-year-old brand, which got its start under the watch of Balenciaga creative director Demna Gvasalia, has not swapped in the vowel-less version of its name on its website or social media accounts or on the tags of its offerings, but a hypothetical name change could potentially make sense given the brand’s difficulty in amassing trademark registrations for its name in its current state. It has faced significant pushback from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”), for instance, in response to applications to register VETEMENTS for use on clothing, in particular, but also for “online retail store services for” the sale of clothing on the basis that the brand name – the French word for clothing – merely describes the types of goods that it makes and sells, and the services that it offers.

In response to one of its applications for the “VETEMENTS” mark for use on clothing, as well as for related retail store services, a USPTO examining attorney preliminarily refused the registration “because the applied-for mark merely describes a feature or a characteristic of [Vetements’] goods,” asserting that a mark is merely descriptive – and thus, not registerable – if it describes an ingredient, quality, characteristic, function, feature, purpose, or use of an applicant’s goods.” Since Vetements, applied to register its name “as a trademark for clothing goods, namely, “Coats; Dress pants; Dress shoes; Dress suits; Dresses; Hats; Jackets; Jeans; Shirts; Skirt suits; Skirts; Suit coats; Suits; Suits of leather; Underwear; Blue jeans; Denim jeans; Ladies’ underwear; Long underwear; Men’s suits, women’s suits; Tee shirts; Thermal underwear,” the USPTO found that based on the English translation, the brand name is, in fact, descriptive.

While it is possible, at least in theory, to overcome a refusal on the grounds of mere descriptiveness, such as by successfully arguing that the mark consists of a double entendre (and thus, is not merely descriptive), it is largely considered to be one of the more difficult and expensive refusal bases to beat. Unsurprisingly, Vetements has since abandoned that application. ( Although, a number of other applications for “Vetements” are still pending, subject, of course, to descriptiveness refusals.)

Vetements has been successful in connection with its quest to register the VTMNTS mark in at least two instances in the U.S.; it was granted a Notice of Allowance for “VTMNTS” for use on clothing, bags, sunglasses, perfume, and jewelry goods in February 2021, and was issued a registration for the mark for use in connection with online retail services in March. Even with this in mind, dropping vowels is not necessarily a home run from a registration perspective, as Nike has learned in its attempts to register SNKRS. 

After filing SNKRS-centric trademark applications in January 2020, the Beaverton-based titan received preliminary pushback across the board from the USPTO’s examining attorney. Specifically, in response to Nike’s applications for “SNKRS” for use on clothing and footwear, an online marketplace featuring footwear and clothing, and services of “providing information, news and commentary in the field of fashion, entertainment, sneakers, popular culture and sports,” among other things (as distinct from its marks that consist of SNKRS and its famed Swoosh logo), the trademark body has preliminarily refused to register those – on more than one occasion – because “the applied-for marks merely describe a purpose and/or use of [Nike’s] goods and/or services.” In addition to being “merely descriptive,” the examiner has asserted that Nike’s “SNKRS” mark “appears to be generic in connection with the identified goods and/or services for classes 25 and 35,” namely, clothing and footwear, and “an online marketplace featuring footwear and clothing,” respectively, and thus, may not be “entitled to registration.” 

Unlike descriptive marks, which may serve to indicate a single source (and thus, function as trademarks) if they have acquired distinctiveness through secondary meaning, marks that are generic – which is what the USPTO has claimed that SNKRS is – can “never act as an indicator of a single party,” according to the International Trademark Association, “since the public perceives and uses them solely as common terms” to refer to a type of product, not its source.

As for ABRDN, the company filed to register its name with the European Union Intellectual Property Office in November 2020 for use on computer software and the design and development of computer software, as well as business and financial services. It was granted a registration for the mark – which even with the vowels does not describe the nature of its business and its offerings – on March 30.  

UPDATED (July 22, 2021): Vetements revealed that it is launching a new brand under the VTMNTS name.