No longer a trend, food trucks are here to stay as restaurant alternatives. Outside of my stomach, I have an academic interest in food trucks: they are great at branding (or they’re not great, and then they disappear) and present all sorts of trademarks issues. Food truck trademarks are great examples of unique branding that you don’t see in other industries so nearly ubiquitously.
At a festival, a concert, or any event that brings in a dozen or so food trucks, customers walk the rounds and often remember the truck with the best – or most outlandish – branding. Branding incorporates a number of things: paint schemes on the truck, structural elements or decorations, and of course, the name of the truck.
I often discover what type of food the truck actually serves long after I’ve been hit with its branding. Until I’m about 6 feet away, I can only see the truck, not the menu, which might be on a chalkboard, a sandwich board, or even just a piece of printed paper. This experience demonstrates to me that the image the truck presents is much more important in initially attracting the customer than the food itself.
You’ll see a whole variety of branding on food trucks. Some are vintage or retro – airstreams, simply-designed milk trucks. Some are insanely elaborate – decorated like real hamburgers or sushi rolls. Some have bright paint jobs, and some opt for flat matte schemes.
You’ll also see a wide range in names, from things like “That Food Truck” to “The Moose is Loose.” Perhaps it is obvious, but food truck names are incredibly important to their vitality because of the way they often advertise their location. On social media, it can be difficult to discern food trucks, and if a The Fry Guy truck says it will downtown at 3:00, but The Fry’s Guys truck says it will be midtown at lunch, you’re going to have some customers going to the wrong truck. If you’re the truck on the wrong side of this confusion, you’ll see some lost sales, maybe even no customers at all.
Food truck owners need to think about many things when launching, operating, and selling their food truck business, like:
1) Develop and protect a great name, logo, and/or slogan
Because the name is so crucial to a social media presence and the ability to advertise, food trucks have to give a great deal of thought about their names. This doesn’t just mean coming up with something catchy, it has to be protectable. If you can’t protect it, the name will become a liability. I’ve seen companies go out of business because they didn’t pick good names, and someone else with a similar job stole their customers. If a food truck starts with a bad name, it will battle uphill from the get-go to keep other trucks out of its space.
A food truck name should be clever, and it should not be descriptive of the food or the service provided. “The Food Truck” is not a good name for your business – it immediately describes the service, and protectable rights will almost certainly never vest with this business. That can represents a huge loss of value in a future sale of the business.
A food truck trademark should also be cleared by a professional trademark attorney. An attorney can give you an idea whether the name is appropriately distinct, but also whether there are similar names already registered. If there are, those other names may prevent you from protecting or even using your name.
The above goes for logos and slogans – if you’ve got a clever and distinct design or catchphrase, run it by a local trademark attorney to make cure it looks clean.
2) Develop and protect trade dress
You can protect the way your truck looks – the shape, the design, the paint scheme. If you’re planning to have several food trucks, or to franchise across states, trade dress protection could be a valuable way to prevent others from running a truck that looks like yours.
3) Use your branding correctly
This one is fairy easy for most food trucks. Placing the name on the outside of the truck, on menus, on your social media, all to advertise your food or your food truck services, is appropriate. Use your trademarks as an adjectives, not as nouns – call it “The Giant Donut foo d truck,” not “The Giant Donut.”
4) Patrol your rights
Watch out for others using names similar to yours. Practically, you should be especially aggressive on social media. You don’t want anyone to start using a name similar to yours that might siphon customers, or might reduce your ability to signal to your loyal base where you’re stopping tomorrow afternoon. Beyond this, you need to make sure other businesses, restaurants, bars, aren’t using names like yours, and aren’t registering trademarks like yours. Cease and desist letters can be helpful ways to let other companies know they should pick a new name or change their existing name.
If you have other questions about food truck trademarks, contact a local trademark attorney, or Tom Galvani here.