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Innovation, imitation, legitimacy and deviance in the design of graphical trademarks in the United States, 1884- -2003.


Graphical trademarks, or logos, represent important aspects of organizational identity and have become ubiquitous in society. Although the conventional wisdom of practitioners in design and business dictates that trademarks should be unique and distinctive, anecdotal evidence suggests that many trademarks appear to be similar to one another. This dissertation attempts to understand patterns of similarity and difference in graphical trademark design through the lens of neoinstitutional theory in sociology. Using data on trademarks from the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the designs of the over 750,000 graphical trademarks filed in the United States between 1884 and 2003 are analyzed in terms of their content, design complexity, and degree of design realism or abstraction. A series of hypotheses regarding trademark design dynamics is tested. Evidence is found suggesting that, rather than providing distinctiveness, trademarks serve to provide legitimacy to organizations by imitating the symbols employed by other organizations, particularly those within the same industry. Further analysis examines the institutionalization and deinstitutionalization of norms in trademark design within industries over time. Finally, the survival of trademarks that deviate from design norms, relative to more normal trademarks, is studied. While such "deviant" trademarks do not seem more likely to be abandoned or cancelled or to expire, further study suggests that trademarks that adhere most strictly to design norms are more likely to survive in use over time.