The US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (the “CAFC”) affirmed the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board’s (the “Board”) decision refusing to register the marks CORN THINS and RICE THINS for snack foods, and vacated the Board’s decision dismissing a claim that these same marks were generic. See Real Foods Pty Ltd. v. Frito-Lay North Am., Inc., Case Nos. 17-1959-2009 (Fed. Cir. Oct. 4, 2018). The Board not only held that the marks CORN THINS and RICE THINS were merely descriptive, but that the marks also failed to acquire distinctiveness. See also the matter finding PRETZEL CRISPS to be generic for pretzel crackers. It is time for the snack industry to pay attention to the past, and consider adopting inherently distinctive marks.
The evidence showed the sales figures were not high, and a relatively small amount of funds were spent on advertising and marketing. Frito-Lay opposed the marks CORN THINS and RICE THINS, arguing that the marks should either be held generic or merely descriptive without a finding of secondary meaning (acquired distinctiveness). As part of the evidence submitted into the record, Frito-Lay produced a survey showing only ten percent of consumers associated the marks with a particular source. The CAFC determined that CORN THINS and RICE THINS were not only merely descriptive of snack foods, but in fact the marks were highly descriptive. In certain cases, five years of substantial and continuous use can allow a mark to acquire distinctiveness when the mark is not inherently distinctive, but this is not the case where the mark is found to be highly descriptive of the goods. The Court stated that an applicant’s burden increases when the mark is highly descriptive. In other words, a more descriptive mark requires more evidence of secondary meaning.
Real Foods argued that the marks were suggestive. Suggestive marks are inherently distinctive trademarks requiring imagination, thought and perception to determine the nature of the goods. Real Foods was hoping for a reversal of the descriptiveness finding, as was made in In re Panasonic Avionics Corp., Serial No. 86499954 (January 5, 2017) [not precedential]. The snack company attempted to convince the CAFC that there was a double entendre associated with the marks. Real Foods argued that the marks CORN THINS and RICE THINS not only conveyed that the snack food was of a physically thin nature, but it was a diet friendly and low calorie snack. The evidence below explains why this argument failed.