4 Things Dealers Must Know About Social Media and Trademarks

Make sure that your legal ducks are in order before you jump into the social media pond

In years past, the refrain among auto dealers has been “Facebook doesn’t sell cars.” But there’s no doubt that the power of social media continues to grow, including its influence on car buyers.

In fact, a recent study by digital engagement company Digital Air Strike revealed that 75% of car buyers said internet research, including social media sites, was the most important medium when selecting a dealership—even more than dealership websites themselves.

Additionally, according to marketing and analytics technology provider Unified, auto ads have a click-through rate that is two times higher than the average Facebook ad, indicating a high level of interest among the social media giant’s audience.

Clearly, if your dealership has been ignoring social media, now is the time to take a closer look and explore how you can add it to your current marketing mix. But make sure that your legal ducks are in order before you jump in the social media pond.

Here a few tips on how a trademark can help keep you safe—and one big caveat to consider before you get started.

1. Caveat: Trademarks and brands

If your dealership includes a national brand name in the name (e.g., Jones Ford, Smith Mercedes-Benz), you need to be careful to not apply for a trademark that includes the national brand (Ford, Mercedes, etc.).

Why? Because the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) will not allow you to obtain a trademark on a name that contains a term with a trademark owned by another entity. In these cases, you’ll need to seek protection on just the part of the name that does not include the national brand (e.g., Jones, Smith, etc.).

An experienced trademark attorney can assist you in determining if this is possible for your dealership. If, however, you’re one of the many dealerships or automotive groups that does not include a brand name in your business name (e.g., Stevens Automotive Group, Fields Motorcars, etc.) and no other auto dealer already owns the trademark, it’s important that you file for federal trademark protection.

2. Hire a trademark professional

The best way to ensure that no other auto dealer in the U.S. can use your dealership’s name is by obtaining a federal trademark registration. Receiving federal registration gives you the right to use that specific name within the auto sales industry, and also helps to ensure that you aren’t accidentally in violation of someone else’s trademark.

Before deciding on your new auto dealership’s name, make sure that the name you choose is available for federal trademark registration. Hire a professional trademark attorney to do the search for you; an attorney will be able to perform a search that will be much more thorough than anything you could do via Google or on the USPTO website.

Additionally, when it’s time to file your federal application, your attorney will be able to draft your application in a way that gives it the greatest chance of meeting all of the USPTO’s technical requirements, something that trips up many first-time filers.

3. Reserve trademark name on social media ASAP

Even before you file a trademark, you should proactively “reserve” your trademark name on all of the most popular social media channels, even if you don’t plan on being active on that particular channel.

By signing up for an account with your name, you are effectively placing a hold on it so it will be there for you in the future if/when you decide to begin reaching out to prospective customers via that channel. It’s a smart practical tip to avoid the need for expensive legal bills to recapture your name on any given platform.

4. Protect your trademark from infringers

According to federal trademark law, to keep the maximum protection in your trademark, you must monitor it to make sure that other businesses are not infringing on your rights—whether that infringement is happening down the street, or in the realm of social media. This goes for your exact name (for example, CAR PLUS), as well as names that may be confusingly similar (CARS+ or KAR PLUS GROUP).

Most of the major social media sites—including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram—have online forms where you can alert them to potential infringement issues.

But get in touch with your trademark attorney before you fill out an online form or send an email to the potential infringer, because if you try to enforce rights that fall outside of the scope of what’s covered under trademark law, you could actually be opening yourself up to legal issues.

If/when your attorney determines that infringement has occurred or is occurring, most of the time all you’ll need to do is to include your federal trademark registration number in the social media site’s online trademark infringement form.

In most cases, this is enough proof of ownership for them; they’ll typically shut down the infringing entity’s page, effectively solving the problem. If this doesn’t happen, however, consult with your attorney about what steps to take next.

Trademarks and social media success

Before your dealership delves into the world of social media, make sure that your trademark affairs are in order. If your name is eligible for trademark protection, hire a trademark attorney to lead you through searching for an available name and filing your trademark application.

Next, reserve your trademark names on the major social media sites to keep others from using them. Finally, keep an eye out for infringement, and take action if someone is in violation of your trademark rights.

By following these tips, you’ll be on the road to social media success.

Founder of Gerben Law Firm, PLLC, Josh Gerben is a U.S. trademark attorney who has represented clients in 5,000+ trademark filings. Featured on Fox News, NPR, and The Wall Street Journal, Gerben Law Firm was named one of 2015’s Top 20 trademark filers in the U.S. by World Trademark Review.

Josh Gerben


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