Whole Foods recently garnered attention when its trademark application for World’s Healthiest Grocery Store was rejected by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The trademark examiner focused on the “World’s Healthiest” part of the proposed mark and found the phrase simply described an alleged benefit of Whole Foods’ products, rather than indicating a source of the products.
Descriptive terms, like “healthiest” or “best,” cannot serve as trademarks without some showing that the term has acquired a secondary meaning of being distinctively associated with a particular source. That is, a term that describes a quality of a product is used on a particular company’s products so much that the term becomes more widely recognized as indicating the source rather than describing the quality. An example is American Airlines®. In Whole Foods’ case, the Trademark Office left the door open for the grocery store to try to develop secondary meaning in its proposed mark by registering it on the so-called Supplemental Register.
Some commentary on Whole Foods’ rejection was focused on whether the assertion by Whole Foods – that it was the World’s Healthiest Grocery Store – was true. The Trademark Office did not analyze the truth of the proposed mark because World’s Healthiest was viewed as a form of “puffery” or a “laudatory” statement.
Sometimes assertions boasting of characteristics like this must be true, other times not. What is required under the circumstances is largely determined by how consumers are expected to react to it. A statement will usually not require proof if it is just a broad claim of superiority that can only be interpreted as an opinion. In contrast, a statement that is deemed “deceptive” will be barred from registration entirely. The Trademark Office distinguishes between statements that are merely expressions of opinion from, for example, statements that would induce a consumer’s purchasing decision. Phrases that are viewed as potentially influencing a purchasing decision includes words that indicate a product characteristic like superior quality, better pricing, societal beliefs (an example of which is the term “vegan”) or, as in the case at hand, phrases indicating a health benefit. One example that falls in a few of these categories is “organik,” which was found to be deceptive when used on clothing made from cotton that was neither organically grown nor free of chemicals. In re Organik Technologies, Inc., 41 U.S.P.Q.2d 1690 (TTAB 1997).
From the perspective of choosing a mark for use in your business, the characterization of a phrase like “World’s Healthiest Grocery Store” affects more than just whether a trademark can be obtained. Such phrases can also run afoul of advertising guidelines set industry organizations, or even result in claims by the FTC. The National Advertising Division of the Better Business Bureaus (NAD) has guidelines for determining whether a statement is acceptable puffery, rather than an improper claim. In one NAD case, NAD found the claim that a baby food uses “the best ingredients nature has to offer” was acceptable puffery, but claims that implied conventional, non-organic baby food products were less nutritious should stop (such as, “some studies show that organic product contains more antioxidants…”).
With the Whole Foods’ claim to being the “World’s Healthiest,” the Trademark Office apparently was not concerned about what it viewed as general boasting. Or, as the FTC might say, it’s okay to talk smack, just as long as it is an obvious exaggeration.