Lee’s Summit got a surprise during the Oscars.
Advertisements for J.C. Penney prominently used the “Yours Truly” the tag line, or theme line, which is a prominent part of the city’s new branding effort which was announced this summer. And after the initial shock, came questions.
The City Council, among others, wondered if the city had squandered its money.
Would this become a conflict with the giant retailer? Should the city change its direction?
James McKenna, brand manager for the community, said there’s no reason for Lee’s Summit to overreact or be worried about a trademark fight.
“Our’s has precedence,” McKenna said. North Star Destination Strategies, the consulting company which worked on the brand, had done a trademark search while working on the brand and no one had applied for it.
He said the city is on solid legal ground, he said, due to trademark law and for practical reasons.
Legally there are limits to how much Lee’s Summit or J.C. Penney could restrict the use of the theme line, McKenna said. In this case even if J.C. Penney had a trademark it would only apply to retail, not for a community brand like Lee’s Summit, but likewise, Lee’s Summit couldn’t prevent J.C. Penney from using it for its advertisements in retail.
“A trademark can’t universally lock in a line for every category, but only in a sphere of business,” McKenna said.
McKenna said a brand is more than the theme lines, which will come and go, but it is the “emotional connection” between the advertiser and the audience built over time.
In Lee’s Summit’s case it’s the “sense of physical and emotional comfort” of being in a community that’s a safe, secure place to live and work, with good schools, neighborhoods and people who help each other.
“Where you can raise your family and have the best you can offer,” McKenna said.
There’s also a real chance the retailer might fold, ending its advertising. This month it let go 2,200 employees due to falling sales.
Another factor is the commonality of the phrase “Yours Truly” as a signature.
Lee’s Summit’s brand wouldn’t be dragged down by a coincidence of Penney’s choosing a similar theme line.
McKenna said the phrase “Yours Truly” is so common no one would associate it solely with J.C. Penney.
“Anyone who’s written a letter has used ‘yours truly,’” he said. The difference in Lee’s Summit’s brand is the particular touch it gives in portraying the community.
Scott Smith, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Central Missouri, said there’s a risk that it appears that Lee’s Summit was copying J.C. Penney, but agreed that the signature “yours truly” is so generic and commonly used, that the main issues is other messaging used by Lee’s Summit.
If the scripting used by Lee’s Summit is substantially different, he doesn’t see a problem.
“I don’t think that you’ll see too much spillover,” Smith said.