Unofficial Business: Coke seeks to keep ‘zero’ from rivals’ use

Coke is trying to get dibs on nothing. Or more specifically “zero.”

As in Coke Zero. As in the zero-calorie soft drink that some men apparently feel better about drinking in part because it doesn’t include the word “diet.” See how words twist us around?

So, for more than a decade, our homegrown soft drink Goliath has been trying to win trademark rights not only to the name Coke Zero but also, incredibly, to the word “zero,” at least as it relates to beverage and particularly soft drinks.

It might get a decision from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office by this summer, according to a recent Wall Street Journal story.

We’ve heard this kind of thing before with companies trying to control use of common words.

But it still sounds goofy in this context. After all, we’re not talking about a common word that was plucked for an uncommon use, such as “Apple” to describe a computer or “Delta” to describe an airline.

I understand Coke’s thinking. It’s got a lot of money wrapped up in this; it doesn’t want to risk that. Of course, nobody forced it to use a number for a product name, then try to swat everybody else away from it.

The company already lost trademark attempts over “zero” in Canada and the United Kingdom.

If Coke also loses in the U.S., it won't be able to throw a trademark hammerlock on rivals like Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, which also likes using "zero." If Coke wins, it could protect Coke Zero, its best soft drink launch in decades and one that is actually growing stronger, unlike Diet Coke which has been losing ground.

A Coke spokeswoman declined to comment much on the trademark case, other than to tell me that no matter what the outcome, the company plans to continue selling drinks with the word “zero.”

Consider the advantage a company has if it can use a crucial word and simultaneously bar its rivals from doing the same.

Coke Zero was hatched as a way for Coke to hold on to young men tired of drinks with lots of calories but turned off by the taste of Diet Coke and the four-letter word that begins with “d.”

Coke Zero became a billion-dollar-a-year seller long ago.

What’s in a number?

Lots of other companies have used number names before: Six Flags, Porsche 911, 3M, Saks Fifth Avenue, V8, 7-Eleven and Heinz 57. On the drink front alone there’s also been 7Up, Dr Pepper TEN and Pepsi One (which is officially now the null set, since it’s no longer sold). There are even rivals that use “zero,” including Diet Rite Pure Zero.

Coke, though, says it has pretty much cornered the market on what we think of when we’re thirsty and see “zero.”

But I found Coke doesn’t have as much of a hold on nothing as they would have us believe.

I googled the word “zero.” Where do you think I found Coke Zero, a hot brand for one of the world’s biggest marketers and a company that had more than $44 billion in sales last year?

On page 10. Near the bottom.

It was long after Chris Brown’s music video “Zero,” links for a pro video game player named ZeRo, Zero Motorcycles, Zero Hedge, Zero Skateboards, ZERO Lighting, Raspberry PI Zero (a $5 computer board, I think), ZERO – the end of prostate cancer nonprofit, Zero App (“best way to get to inbox zero!”), Arctic Zero frozen desserts, Zero candy bar, Zero fishing reels, etc.

Coke Zero wasn’t even the first “zero” beverage in the search results.

Zero Gravity Craft Brewery in Burlington, Vt., beat Coke.

“Wow,” Matt Wilson said when I informed him of this.

He’s a co-owner of Zero Gravity, which opened in 2004 (the year Coke says it added Zero to the name of Diet Sprite) and includes a brew pub and a small brewing operation. It is, Wilson told me, “one of most exciting, fastest growing brands in the Vermont brewing scene.”

News to him

I told him about Coke’s trademark bid for “zero.” Wilson said it was news to him.

“I’m sure Coke would like to trademark the word cola too, but I don’t think it is going to happen,” he said. “It seems like a long shot to me, based on my fairly remedial knowledge of U.S. trademark laws.”

I checked with a professor who specializes in such issues.

Tim Holbrook of Emory University thinks Coke has a decent shot at winning. But it’s not altogether clear.

Numbers can be trademarked in some situations, he said. But Coke didn’t pick a number out of the blue. It choose one that refers to the absence of calories.

It’s harder to win trademark protection for a word that is descriptive (like the word “beer” for the name of a beer) than it is for one that is merely suggestive and requires a further leap in thinking, he said.

So, when you hear the word zero in connection with a drink, do you immediately know it means zero calories or does it just sort of hint in that direction?

“It’s a strange bit of line drawing,” Holbrook acknowledged.