The Campbell Soup Company (“Campbell’s”) can now tell its competitors, “No CHUNKY soup for you!” Earlier this month, Campbell’s earned the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s (“USPTO”) approval to trademark the word “CHUNKY.” Campbell’s has long used the word to describe its more ingredient-filled soups, but now the Camden, New Jersey-based soup giant can officially add CHUNKY to its extensive list of registered trademarks. Not only is it a major windfall for a soup company to own the rights to a word often used to describe the texture and look of soup, but it is a rare accomplishment, and Campbell’s has pop culture, its lengthy relationship with the National Football League (“NFL”), and years of successful advertising to thank.
Generally, marks considered merely descriptive of the goods for which they are associated cannot be protected until these marks achieve secondary meaning. A mark is considered merely descriptive if it describes an ingredient, quality, characteristic, function, feature, purpose or use of the specified goods or services. Secondary meaning is accomplished when consumers have come to identify a mark with a specific product over time. While CHUNKY could be a word used to describe the hodgepodge of extra vegetables, pasta, and meat stuffed into some of Campbell’s soups, Campbell’s successfully demonstrated secondary meaning by citing to “massive unsolicited media coverage” of CHUNKY in its trademark application. Over the years, CHUNKY has been parodied on Saturday Night Live, Family Guy, The Simpsons, and The Daily Show. Campbell’s also reportedly spent $1 billion in advertising since 1988, including its NFL sponsorship, and put out commercials featuring NFL players like Reggie White and Donovan McNabb eating the CHUNKY line of Campbell’s soup. Rapper Ghostface Killah referenced the soup in his lyrics to “Murda Goons” (“Leave your brain all chunky like I’m advertising soup from Campbell’s”) and Pulitzer-Prize winning author Colson Whitehead said in his novel, Sag Harbor, “We were Campbell’s men, had been for years, and nothing took the edge off like the talent in their boutique Chunky line…” Campbell’s also presented a survey showing that 75 percent of consumers associated the word “chunky” with the soup. In the end, the USPTO agreed that CHUNKY had achieved secondary meaning in the eyes of consumers, and granted Campbell’s the trademark rights.
But what does this mean for other companies looking to possibly use the word chunky to describe food products? Campbell’s has reportedly said that the word will be limited in connection with soups – not other food products. For example, a food product called “Chunky Muffins” would not violate Campbell’s trademark. Additionally, Campbell’s has said that “non-prominent, descriptive” uses of the word, such as “chunky-style,” that are not a trademark, will not be a violation. Finally, trademark applicants can learn a thing or two from Campbell’s CHUNKY victory. Trademark applicants should be reminded of the importance of making meaningful and memorable connections with consumers through multiple avenues for not just products, but words used to describe products. For it is especially through unique and standout marketing that a mark can achieve the secondary meaning necessary to secure an even stronger position in the marketplace.