Too Good To Be True: A Trade Dress Saga

In my mind I see a mirage on the wall. But unfortunately it’s not there at all.
/Mirage, by Iron Butterfly

I don’t put much stock in mirages. They may be good plot devices for movies set in the Sahara or a Bugs Bunny cartoon. But in the real world, I’ve never come close to experiencing the confluence of dehydration and desperation thought to produce the hallucinatory visions depicted in film and in literature.

Then came Covid-19 and sheltering in place. Within a few short days, things shifted from well-stocked supermarket shelves to the “new normal” where many staples have been in short supply. Not wanting the cupboard to go bare, we found an organic ranch in California that still had plenty of beef, lamb, and pork and would ship to our door.

I’ve long believed the adage “never shop for groceries on an empty stomach.” I’m here to report that the advice holds doubly true when ordering meat from the Internet. With a few clicks of the mouse, we had purchased approximately an entire side o’beef, or so it seemed from the price tag.

A few days later, UPS delivered a heavy box marked “PERISHABLE, OPEN IMMEDIATELY.” After puzzling over what might be inside, it dawned on me that we now HAVE THE MEAT! I found the nearest sharp object and tore open the box. Reaching inside, I began to remove not the prime-aged cuts I’d been craving, but plastic white tubes with red lettering–one after the other, like circus clowns emerging from a tiny car.

This is where the mirage theme comes in. My mind’s eye saw the white and red tubes not for what they were–15 one pound packages of ground beef that rounded out our order. I saw what I wished them to be–tantalizing cylinders of Taylor Pork Roll (pictured above), a rare and unusual Spam-like meat product that comes from only one place on the planet–Trenton, New Jersey, my hometown. I had practically been weaned on the savory blend of pork and spices that Trentonians traditionally grilled or fried, topped with American cheese, and served on a fresh, crust Kaiser roll with mustard.

For an instant, I was thrilled. Then doubt began to seep in. Why would a premium organic beef purveyor have commingled 15 Taylor Pork Roll rolls among the T-bones, filets, and sirloins? The rock-frozen pork roll may be cheap, but not cheaper than dry ice!

But my initial belief that I’d received a motherload of the very pork roll brand my mother once served-up was no mirage. It was a by-product of the facet of trademarks called “trade dress.” You see, more than words and logos can function as a brand. Trademark protection also can extend to the appearance of packaging itself–the combination of colors, shape, and overall “look and feel” that can identify a product’s source as strongly as its name. Prime examples include the COCA-COLA bottle and the Cracker Jack Box. In most cases, companies must earn trademark protection for their product packaging through five years or more of sales and advertising. They must prove what’s known as “secondary meaning,” which means that the trade dress has acquired brand significance among relevant consumers.

The Taylor Pork Roll package has all the hallmarks of protectable trade dress. The company has been selling its product in the same white and red packaging for decades while earning a devoted fan base of New Jerseyans that have migrated across the land and globe.

Considering the striking similarity between the Taylor trade dress and the ground beef now loaded into every nook and cranny of our freezer, my mirage moment is both understandable and forgivable. I’m sure I’ll be enjoying these meal-size packets of quality ground beef for weeks to come, and hopefully long after sheltering-in-place gives way to barbecuing with friends and family. And I’m equally sure that after shoppers pillage the supermarket shelves of dairy, groceries, and all other manner of comestibles, there’ll probably still be a few packages of pork roll left. And every time I take a package of that ground beef out of the freezer to thaw, I’ll smile to myself and think of the white and red Taylor Pork Roll trade dress.

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