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How to avoid a legal row over your brand name - Comment

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What's in a brand name? A lot more than we would expect, according to spirits commentator Neil Ridley. And, he speaks from experience.

Swedens Box Destilleri is now called High Coast

Sweden's Box Destilleri is now called High Coast

Was anyone else as cynical as I was, when hearing about the latest brand name spat in spirits this month? The news earlier this month that Box Destilleri, a craft whisky operation based in northern Sweden that has been distilling since 2010, has changed its name to High Coast sparked my curiosity, due in part to its claim of a "risk of conflict" with one of its peers. The "brand collision" was with London-based Compass Box, an artisan Scotch blending company that Bacardi bought into in 2015.

What really got me going was this quote from High Coast: 'It would be inopportune for two whisky companies to operate under the name of Box," the company said. "We also feel that Box Destilleri AB has slim chances in a brand-name dispute with a multinational company such as Bacardi."

Has 'little ole' Box been bullied into changing the name of its distillery by the threat of lengthy and expensive litigation, which would likely result in a name change all the same? Was this a delicious case of David versus Goliath?

In this instance, probably not. While Bacardi does own a minority shareholding in Compass Box, the size of stake, according to company founder John Glaser, "does not alter the day-to-day management or operation of our business".

"It (Bacardi's holding) does not have any impact on the way we make our whiskies, the decisions we take or our mission to innovate, to explore, to push the boundaries of Scotch whisky forward," Glaser said.

To call out Bacardi in the way Box has seems disingenuous to me, even petty. And yet, the news prompted numerous social media trolls to automatically side with Box's plight, lambasting Compass Box as a "sellout", hiding behind big company lawyers to get its own way.

All of which is pretty unfair, if you ask me.

What we have here is a simmering case of hoping an issue might never arise: The equivalent of putting a household bill behind the clock on the mantlepiece and hoping it goes away. Now that a potential breach of copyright has arisen, Box/High Coast's stance appears to try to gain as much favourable publicity from the situation as possible.

One could have argued that if the distillery's whisky was only going to be a very localised product and not distributed internationally, then any confusion between the two brands would be minuscule. As it happens, the Swedish company clearly has big plans to become more widely available. Regrettably, then, the two brand names couldn't co-exist together, given the realistic likelihood of consumer confusion.

What this whole issue has highlighted is just how difficult it is these days to come up with an original name or territory in the whisk(e)y industry. In a category that is increasingly-reliant on No Age Statement expressions, coming up with a new product name that hasn't been used before, or doesn't take a cue from something - or someone - else is a tricky task for the marketer.

The 'real estate' of trademarks is a competitive place and, if you're planning a new brand, you really need to do your homework, research thoroughly and make sure there's nothing that could bite you on the behind in the future.

I should know: I experienced this first-hand a few years ago, when I was involved in the naming and creative strategy of a new whisky brand for a global company. As a team, we all thought we'd cracked it; a new product name for a fairly major whisky brand, which seemed to perfectly fit the ethos and the personality of the liquid.

There was one minor snag: A tiny beer brand in Scandinavia had potentially beaten us to the punch and had registered a similar - but not exactly the same - name. Undeterred and, seemingly, unconcerned, the brand owner pressed ahead, only to be hit by a sizeable claim for compensation 18 months later, which it duly paid under threat of legal action.

A simple phone call or email could have sorted it out, a new name sought and a load of aggression and mud-slinging avoided. This is what perplexes me about the Box/Compass Box issue. (When all is said and done, though, High Coast is a much nicer name anyway.)

So, a word of warning: Anyone thinking of calling their new whisky Wonnie Jalker/ Dack Janiel's, or naming their craft distillery with a hint of similarity to that of another, had better think twice.

Last Orders with Neil Ridley - Click here for more of Neil's thoughts on the brown spirits category


Sectors: Spirits

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