The New Mizzou Football Helmet: a Trademark Perspective

posted Mar 6, 2012, 1:29 PM by Calan McConkey   [ updated Mar 6, 2012, 1:34 PM ]

It was released today that the University of Missouri (my alma mater) will drop the "M" from their classic football helmet.

Pictured to the left is the traditional helmet that the Mizzou football team has been using for the last 40 years. Although the new design has not yet been released, the design is rumored to contain the Mizzou "tiger" logo that is used on essentially everything else sports-related other than the football helmet.

I am a big supporter of the University's decision. I've never liked the "M" logo because I believed that it is not unique and it is hard to distinguish from other schools that have ties to the letter "M". That being said, if I had my choice I would go back to the old school tiger paw logo (although it looks similar to Clemson), but that's really not relevant here. I feel like the only argument for keeping the old helmet design is for the sake of tradition, but that defense can only be taken so far.

I started thinking more about the decision to change the helmet -- along with the rationale given -- and I realized that the change actually translates directly to a trademark/business decision: use a logo that allows the consumer to easily identify your product.

According to an article on STLtoday.com, the decision to make the change is partially based on the fact that the "M" is borderline indistinguishable from other school logos. More specifically, Coach Gary Pinkel said:

"...studies showed that MU's most distinct icons are the word 'Mizzou' and its Tiger-head logo. And nationally...the 'M' is easily confused with Michigan or others."



Here is the Michigan logo. Look familiar? Probably realizing how common the design is, Michigan doesn't use this on their football helmet. Instead they use a design that (I'm assuming) relates to their mascot, the wolverine.





This is from the University of Minnesota. Although not identical, you can see where it could create confusion.








Finally, we have the Memphis Tigers logo. If not for the blue color, this would be perfect for Mizzou as it combines the standard (read: confusing) block "M" with a tiger.








The University of Missouri's "tiger" logo is a registered trademark (Registration # 3081291, filed back in 2004) and, the best that I can tell, the "M" logo is not. And I am fairly certain that the lack of registration of the "M" is not based on an oversight by the Mizzou IP department, but because it is confusingly similar/not distinguishable from other trademarks. Looking at these details alone support Mizzou's helmet decision. There is nothing that would stop the University of Maryland/Mississippi/Montana/Minnesota or any other college that has ties to an "M" from using a helmet just like Mizzou's. Because of this, Mizzou redesigning their helmet will transform a seemingly generic product to a highly recognizable and -- more importantly -- protectable piece of intellectual property. Well done.

I'm curious to see the new helmet design and if it is anything close to the rumor pictures I have found online. From what I have seen, the football team will be looking quite exclusive for their new SEC season. As both a fan and an intellectual property attorney, I believe this is a great decision. GO MIZZOU!
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