Throughout the 19th century, there was minimal concern among businesses about brand protection; in fact, the first federal trademark law was not passed until 1870. The earliest DuPont labels juxtaposed images of the rugged, independent hunters of rural America with the company name. As the century progressed, the company relied increasingly on a standardized label featuring an American eagle and the DuPont name all enclosed in an oval. The Eagle label became synonymous with quality gunpowder, confirming the importance of a standard product brand in developing customer loyalty.
By the early 20th century, DuPont had diversified beyond gunpowder into other products and company officials sought a standard “superbrand” to connect all products to the DuPont name. Early in 1906, the company commissioned artist G.A. Wolf to design a trademark. Drawing on the shape of the traditional American eagle label, Wolf created the modern DuPont oval, which was adopted in 1909.
The consumer boom of the 1920s underscored the importance of national brands and brand loyalty, and DuPont matched distinctive trademarks with an increasingly diverse product base. The company developed and trademarked the popular Duco pyroxylin lacquers and Dulux synthetic resin enamels. DuPont also acquired the rights to cellophane cellulose film and rayon synthetic fiber. Aggressive advertising meant that by 1929, the DuPont oval appeared in print more than 300 million times annually. During the 1930s, DuPont trademarks began to reflect its commitment to developing new products through pure research.
It was in the 1930s that DuPont officials gained a curious insight: sometimes, in order to protect the company name it was important not to trademark a product. Early in the decade the company trademarked its new synthetic rubber as DuPrene, but found it could not safeguard the integrity of the product name. DuPrene was an unprocessed material, and unreliable manufacturers who produced poor goods threatened to give the product and DuPont a bad reputation. As a result, DuPont abandoned the trademark in 1936 and applied the generic name “neoprene” to distinguish it as an original ingredient, not a finished product. DuPont applied similar logic when it chose not to trademark the revolutionary synthetic fiber nylon.
DuPont learned another important lesson in the rules of trademark registration during the 1930s. In 1936 the company sued Sylvania for marketing a plastic wrap using the DuPont trade name cellophane. Sylvania argued that no other common name for the material existed. The court agreed, finding that DuPont had not properly protected its trademark by distinguishing the branded product from the generic cellulose film. The company responded to the defeat by strengthening and expanding the Legal Department’s trademark division.
The economic boom after World War II unleashed a new wave of consumer buying and corresponding concern over branding and trademarks. Increasing competition in the chemical industry, particularly in the production of synthetic fibers, made trademarking a crucial means of establishing a product’s identity while ensuring legal protection and winning the loyalty of consumers. DuPont sewed up the postwar synthetic textile market with Orlon acrylic fiber and Dacron polyester fiber, both with names reminiscent of nylon, but trademarked since corporate officials now believed that DuPont’s reputation as a quality fibers manufacturer was secure. But the marketability of a brand name itself was becoming increasingly important. When DuPont introduced a new elastomeric fiber called “Fiber K” in 1958, it received little attention from consumers. Reintroduced two years later as Lycra, the fiber was an immediate success.
By the 1960s, the company was generating so many new products that it needed the help of a computer to create brand names that were memorable and universally appealing. As DuPont expanded across the globe, the company used computer technology to generate potential brand names and then ensure that they were appropriate in every language.
As the sheer number of DuPont brands increased, so did the company’s commitment to protecting its trademarks. In the 1970s, CEO Irving Shapiro made public confidence in the DuPont name and protection of its trademarked products a top priority. During the decade, DuPont successfully sued Japan’s YKK Company for marketing a nylon zipper called Eflon, arguing that it was a trademark infringement of Teflon® fluorocarbon resin. DuPont effectively demonstrated that it had always differentiated Teflon from the generic term fluorocarbon resin and showed that a majority of the public identified Teflon as a brand name rather than a generic. By the early 1980s, DuPont maintained a staff of about 30 trademark lawyers and spent nearly $1million per year on trademark protection.
“Trademarks: Why Companies Guard Them More Tightly,” Chemical Week, January 13, 1982.
David A. Hounshell and John Kenley Smith, Jr., Science and Corporate Strategy: DuPont R&D, 1902-1980, (NewYork: Cambridge University Press, 1988).