We’re all familiar with the concept of a “start-up”. It’s an important player in the business environment of any healthy economy: bringing new products, new services, fresh thinking on a wave of entrepreneurial passion and energy.

But it’s a challenging game entering the market for the first time. You’re not known, your customer base is small, your funds may be low – and well established competitors are keen to ensure you don’t threaten their business. It’s a vulnerable stage in the life of a business -not least in terms of your brand identity. How do you protect your fledgling brand or, more pertinently, how do you keep the IP protection cost manageable when you don’t have significant resources?

For any start-up, money is tight and each dollar may be pulled in different directions. Prioritising spend is critical, but you must still balance this against the long-term objectives sound intellectual property cover will safeguard.

Your long-term objectives will differ depending on the nature of your start-up, but a trade mark (aka a brand) is typically an anchor-point for all businesses. It is, after all, your identity in the market. Each business is striving to create a reputation that will come to be imbued with their business. When you succeed in this, you separate yourself from your competitors and avoid getting lost in the crowd. The more unique and creative your selected trade mark, the greater your brand differentiation.

Even so, many businesses are tempted to select a name that describes the nature or purpose of their product or service, a trade mark that immediately tells your customers what you do or what you are selling. Tempting,yes. But descriptive names are best avoided.

You need to trust in your ability to develop a brand reputation without the need to choose a purely descriptive trade mark. Such trade marks are difficult to protect. Even if you succeed in securing registered protection for such a brand, your competitors will sit much closer to you. Your ability to assert your rights against other similar brands will almost inevitably be compromised.

To avoid this trap, make your brand selection a priority - a critical step in shaping the personality and story of your start-up. The start-up team should aim for a brand that is unique, one that will make an impression on customers, and set them apart from their competitors. It should also be one that is easily searched online.

Also, consider how you want your business to develop over the next 3 – 5 years, and have clearance searches completed well before you commit to your mark to check it is available and you don’t infringe someone else. Careful search and filing strategies can also stagger costs, and should be viewed as an integral part of the brand selection process. Rather than commit to a trade mark and deal with unforeseen repercussions post-launch, take action once you have a short-list of marks that have passed scrutiny.

The story of NZ honey start-up Lumojo Honey is a sound case study in how to take a bold branding approach, while taking care to protect the brand IP. Conventionally, honey marketers have tended to emphasise the product – along with the bees, hives, honeycombs or flowers that create it - in their branding and marketing.

Lumojo chose a different approach. Intellectual property is at the heart of the Lumojo experience. “Lumojo” (a made-up name) and the shapes of the jars, along with the colours and a special typeface used in the branding, were all carefully selected.

As a brand, Lumojo is unique, easy to recall, and readily conjures associations of quality - it draws you in. By selecting a highly distinctive trade mark, the business is positioned to guard against new entrants attempting to follow in its foot-steps.

Lumojo sought trade mark assistance shortly after the brand creation process, allowing time to implement trade mark protection strategies not only in New Zealand, but internationally, well in advance of its launch. After securing a foundation of rights in New Zealand, the Madrid international filing system was used to target key future markets for the business overseas, with national filings in countries not yet party to the Madrid system. Lumojo’s story hasn’t ended yet, nor should it.

Trade marks typically evolve with the business, and regular attention to the scope of protection and market competition is important. As a tangible business asset, brand protection should not be left in a drawer and forgotten – but harnessed. Just as long-term business plans are formatted and implemented, short- and long-term IP protection plans help map out business defences and business growth.

Lumojo founder Liz Urquhart says honey is an interesting product to consider in branding and marketing terms. “Is it a commodity, where there isn’t a great deal of difference between one quality honey and another, or can it be successfully ‘branded’ to take up a distinct position in the consumers’ eyes?

“Honey has enjoyed relatively high returns for the product, which to some extent made branding financially unnecessary in the past – producers were all making good money so why differentiate? But if honey prices fell, that situation could change.”

Liz says the decision whether to brand or not also relates to your marketing intent: if you brand, you are looking at high value and return over time, and not necessarily high volume. “You’re looking at engaging a part of the market that will identify with, and pay for the brand attributes you’re selling.”

The brand versus commodity approach can differ from country to country. Globally, the entry of private labels has impacted many foods in the fast-moving consumer goods sector. On the other hand, consumers value quality, uniqueness, and the “experience”. This has seen an influx in previously stable areas. Examples include new spreads with an organic focus and new packaging, and brands with a craft focus.

The branding of goods such as cheese, coffee, and chocolate demonstrates how “everyday” foods items can be and have been elevated to become premium products. The harnessing of your brand plays a critical role in this process, along with re-thinking the nature of the product, its quality dimensions and its potential.