Building and Protecting Your Self-Storage Brand
No matter what business you're in, being associated with a particular brand name can be a great benefit if the brand is well-known and respected. But in the self-storage industry, not all operators care about brand recognition. Even in areas of fierce market competition, some facilities operate sans logo, company colors or other unique, identifying marks. They may be named only according to location, perhaps calling out a particular intersection or local landmark to identify the site. This approach, too, can have a marketing advantage, and has proven successful in some markets.
But in this age of intense media messaging, more and more self-storage owners rely on their ability to build a positive brand image, one that resonates with their community and bespeaks quality. They invest time and money in their logo and marketing materials, establishing consistency in the face they present to customers. Their desire is that, when people see that logo or a particular color scheme, for example, they immediately think, "Oh, yeah, that's XYZ Storage."
So what do you do when you work hard at building a brand and reputation, only to have another company come along and attempt to ride on its coattails? For example, one of the reasons U-Store-It Trust Inc. changed its brand name to CubeSmart last year was because of lost business it attributed to confusion with other similarly named companies. Company CEO Dean Jernigan shared more in an interview with Inside Self-Storage:
"The name U-Store-It is so descriptive that we had a lot of confusion in the marketplace. We did a survey in our largest markets and found that about 60 percent of our properties competed with another property we didn’t own but had a similar name. Sometimes it even had the exact spelling of our name. We had no protection from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office or even at the state level. If someone wanted to use our name or something similar to our name, we couldn’t do anything about it.
As we rely more on capturing business through the Internet, we lost a lot of business. We quantified it to the point that we think we were losing up to $2 million a year in business because of the name confusion. Customers would go online and make a reservation with us, and not show up. We’d follow up and find out they rented from a facility with a derivation of U-Store-It in the name. It was maddening.
There were other times where we’d have a U-Store-It facility right down the street from us, and we knew for sure people would be trying to get to us but find the other facility. We have one in Tucson, Ariz., that’s right next door to us. The name is spelled exactly as ours. Their manager thanks us all the time for sending business his way. He has no marketing budget and captures nothing on the Internet—we do, and he ends up with the rental."
This week The Globe and Mail published an article about another self-storage operator with a similar quandary. Sean Brophy of Spaces Self Storage Centres Inc. in Canada recently discovered at least one other storage business with a name similar to his. Having spent $25,000 to trademark his company name, he takes issue with the possibility that customers may confuse another business for his own. (Spaces Self Storage Centres was established in Ontario in 2004. The company has facilities in the Greater Brockville, Gananoque, Kingston, Napanee and surrounding areas.)
Branding is key to his success, Brophy told the source, with aspirations to make his company as well known as 1-800-GOT-JUNK. But after speaking to a lawyer, he now knows it can be complicated and expensive to challenge other contenders for the brand name. He's not sure how far he should go to protect it. “Now we need to figure out: How much is our brand worth?”
Three years ago, the owners of a Texas self-storage company asked themselves the same question, and went all the way to a federal appeals court to answer it. In 2009, Amazing Spaces Inc. sued Landmark Interest Corp., a self-storage construction company, and Metro Mini Storage, a competing facility operator, for using the Texas star on their buildings, claiming to have a valid trademark on the image. In this case, the dispute was not over the facility name, but an image it considered part of its branding identity.
Unfortunately for Amazing Spaces, in June 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld a September 2009 ruling that the company could not trademark the Texas star for its exclusive marketing use. The court upheld that use of the Texas Star cannot be trademarked, and all Texans are free to use the famous icon. It was demonstrated in court that at least 29 other self-storage companies and businesses in 63 other industries use the symbol.
No doubt there are other self-storage operators out there facility similar challenges. I've noticed in my own online searching, particularly as we assemble the ISS Top-Operators List each year, there are facilities with comparable names in nearly every major market. It's confusing. But again, each operator has to weigh the value of his brand against the cost to defend it. Experts who weighed in through The Globe and Mail in regard to Brophy's case suggested these steps:
- Make sure there’s a case. Check to see if another company was the first business to use the name and has the records to support a claim.
- Find other creative solutions.
- Talk to the other company to see whether there’s a way everyone can use the name without interfering with each other’s business.
- Find a new name. It may be easier, cheaper and faster to change your company name and rebrand, especially if the name in question isn’t particularly well known.
Do you have competitors with a facility or company name similar to your own? If so, does it bother you, or has it worked to your advantage? Have you done anything to change the situation? Share your insights and experiences here on the blog. Tell us, what's in a self-storage name?
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