Wyke Farms, the UK’s largest independent cheese producer, has trademarked “Free Cheese Friday” to capitalize on the huge popularity of one of its social media campaigns.

Since 1861, Wyke Farms has been processing milk and producing cheese. For the past four years, the Somerset-based company has been running a weekly online competition called Free Cheese Friday. The event calls for UK residents to like Wyke’s Facebook and re-tweet @wykefarms #freecheesefriday for the chance to win one 300-gram piece of Wyke Farms Cheddar. [tweetable alt=”Currently, 25,000 people enter @wykefarms’ #freecheesefriday competition every month” hashtag=””]Currently, 25,000 people enter the competition every month.[/tweetable]

David, Goliath, and Twitter

As these impressive figures will tell you, Wyke Farms has ambitiously cultivated its social media presence: 47,000 people follow the company across both Facebook and Twitter, according to the Telegraph.

Managing director and third generation family member of Wyke Farms Rich Clothier comments, “We’re an independent business from Somerset. Everyday is a David-and-Goliath battle with the big companies. We use social media to level up the playing field. Social media can be the stone to slay the Goliath.”

With a Facebook page, Twitter, Pinterest, and YouTube accounts, and a blog, Wyke Farms has demonstrated a serious commitment to social media, content creation, and engagement with their customer base.

And this punchy cheese dealership isn’t messing around. The family-owned company employs 205 people and makes 14,000 tons of cheese a year. And owner John Clothier notes that Wyke Farms is the first brand in the UK to register a trademark based on a social media campaign.

Mark Armitage, a trademark consultant at the intellectual property law firm Withers & Rogers, foresees this trend’s vast potential: “Marketers and brandowners should review their brand marketing work in light of this decision and seek to protect phrases they regard as having commercial potential. Failing to protect such creative equity could leave them open to copycat campaigns in the future.”

It looks like competitors will have to choose another day of the week for their cheese promotions.

#Trademark

In all seriousness, this news reveals a completely new use of trademark registration, which has traditionally been limited to products, promotional material, or websites. There is no precedent for a trademarked hashtag, according to IP Whiteboard.

On the other side of the pond, the US Patents and Trademarks Office recently went so far as to publish guidance for brands hoping to follow Wyke Farms’ lead and seek trademark protection for a hashtag.

The guidelines state: “A mark comprising or including the hash symbol (#) or the term HASHTAG is registrable as a trademark of service only if it functions as an identifier of the source of the applicant’s goods or services.”

However, there are a few things brands should keep in mind before attempting to register a hashtag. The hashtag should, like the excerpt above says, identify a specific good or service. And before choosing a hashtag, brands must make sure that it’s unique and hasn’t already been trademarked.

Learn from the Ice Bucket Challenge

Another tip to trademarking is to make sure the phrase, hashtag, or concept has not already been invented. Surely by now everyone is familiar with the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. But for the unfamiliar, this past summer, the Amyotrohpic Lateral Sclerosis Association’s ice bucket challenge campaign raised almost $100 million from donations associated with the viral challenge videos.

Seeking to capitalize on the success of the campaign, the charity tried to trademark “ice bucket challenge.” Outrage ensued, as critics declared that the ALSA didn’t invent the phrase “ice bucket challenge” nor the concept, which had been used by charities before the ALS edition, as Wired reports. [tweetable alt=”Having tried to #copyright the #IceBucketChallenge hashtag, @ALSA_EC gave up after an #outcry” hashtag=””]The organization promptly cancelled the application for registration following the outcry.[/tweetable]

Mad? Genius? Mad Genius?

Wyke Farms has a history of very active promotion of their products. Owner John Clothier sang to customers at a Shepton Tesco store to commemorate the launch of the farm’s latest line. But in trademarking their social media campaign, they may just be ahead of the curve.

It is often said that search is getting social, so brands need to be social. Considering the state of marketing, it makes sense to claim ownership of a hashtag used frequently in a longstanding social media campaign. Nowadays, permanently and legally attaching one’s brand to a hashtag is the equivalent of trademarking a company slogan.

Though one might wonder who else would use the hashtag, “FreeCheeseFridays,” its trademarking does represent the next step in making brands social. It’s time to think up a hashtag for your own brand with trademark potential.

Longneck and Thunderfoot offer social media management services to build a vibrant audience for your brand across all media channels. Learn more about social media and PR here.

(Main image credit: Henry…/flickr)