Should Brands be Able to Own Certain Hashtags, Permanently?

As more companies jump on purchasing Promoted Products on Twitter, we’re beginning to see some interesting uses of certain phrases, hashtags, and topics. The Washington Post captured a significant portion of chatter around #elections, CocaCola was at the center of World Cup buzz with the purchase of #WC2010, and Target had the first tweet for #BlackFriday. These are smart marketing moves, designed to promote brand awareness through secondary topics. However, when one brand capitalizes on the popularity of another, we have to ask ourselves: should Twitter sell permanent control of certain Promoted Products to brands with trademarks?

The situation that got me thinking about this question is HP’s recent purchase of the #apple, #mac and #dell hashtags. As TechCrunch noted earlier this week, HP is placing rotating ads at the top of search results for these (and possibly other branded) terms.

Check out the HP Promoted Tweet for a search for #apple below:

Apple (and Mac) are trademarks of Apple, and by promoting its own store using the #apple hashtag, HP might be confusing Twitter users. The link included in the Promoted Tweet takes the user to the HP store, not the Apple store, and has nothing (that we could discern) to do with Apple whatsoever.

One possible solution to this problem of brands piggy-backing on other brands to get more Twitter eyeballs on their tweet could be giving ownership of trademarked terms to the company which owns them.

However, this has the potential to create a vacuum of “good” terms to target, especially considering that brand names can be rather generic. If a grocery store, for instance, wanted to purchase the hashtag #apple, that’s a different story than a direct competitor purchasing the hashtag.

Another possible solution would be to disallow anyone – including the trademark holder – from purchasing the term in question. Of course, this leads to problems when a brand wants to advertise its services directly by using its own name on Twitter.

So what is Twitter, a company that is new to marketing, to do?

Likely, they will just let the brands duke it out. At anywhere from $80,000 to $100,000 a pop, Promoted Products aren’t necessarily going to be selling like hotcakes. So, when HP runs out of Twitter advertising dollars, Apple can simply grab up its hashtag for a couple of days with its own Promoted Tweets.

The marketing strategy of capitalizing on a competitor’s more ubiquitous brand is a dubious strategy at best. Consumers aren’t likely to react favorably to HP if they searched for #apple hoping to find news or information about Apple’s official products, and instead get taken to the HP store.

It looks like there are little to no rules about what hahstags, phrases or words a brand can target with its Promoted Tweets, other than the fact that it must be organically occurring in the Twitter-verse. If HP’s strategy continues, Twitter might have to re-think permissions for certain keywords, but until then, Promoted Products are a bit of a free-for-all.