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Why did Red Bull Threaten Redwell?

Thursday, 12 September 2013

For some companies the brand is everything. Red Bull is a great example of a company whose brand extends far beyond its primary product. The energy drinks company sponsors extreme sports, owns five football teams and two racing car teams, to name some of its many ventures.

As such the company is rightly protective of the investment its brand but there can be a fine line between protection and a perception of bullying in trademark disputes.

Red Bull v Redwell

It emerged earlier in the summer that the energy drinks giant had threatened the Norfolk micro-brewery ‘Redwell’ with legal action because it felt the brewer’s name would ‘confuse’ customers and ‘tarnish’ Red Bull’s trademark.

Redwell currently produces three lagers and two ales, employs eight people, does not produce energy drinks and its packing does not look like Red Bull’s. It does, however, have ‘Red’ at the start of its name and end in ‘ll’.

A Bullish Approach by Red Bull

In the days following the brewer’s trademarking of its name in May, after Redwell Street in Norwich city centre, it received a letter of complaint from Red Bull. The drinks giant claimed the brewery's mark was ‘highly similar’ to Red Bull's ‘RED’ trademark and its application covered goods in the same competitive marketplace as Red Bull. It also claimed that Redwell and Red Bull looked and sounded similar and it was ‘likely’ customers would perceive the brewery's drinks as an ‘imitation’.

What followed should be a cautionary tale for those seeking to protect well known brands. The story was picked up by news organisations and social media and quickly created a wave of opprobrium against the drinks giant. The comedy writer Graham Linehan tweeted his scorn to his 300,000 followers and writer and broadcaster Melissa Cole, named one of the ‘Most Powerful Women in the Drinks Industry’ by Channel4 Food tweeted she was ‘Utterly disgusted…You petty, petty bullies.’ Other tweeters called for a Red Bull boycott.

Red Bull’s Climb-down

Red Bull then stated there was ‘no dispute’ and it was happy for Redwell to use the name as long as it did not use it for energy drinks. This seemed to contradict earlier statements before the social media storm where it stated it did not comment on ‘pending cases’ and of Redwell who claimed it had had no response to its offer not to produce an energy drink.

Comment

Big brands like Red Bull which invest so much in creating their brand have every right to protect it where they feel it is being undermined or if someone is imitating them. Immediately threatening legal action, however, is not always the best course of action.

With the ubiquity of social media, brand owners should ask themselves not simply are they legally right but how would this look if tweeted worldwide? For cases where the evidence of actually imitating or undermining of the brand is marginal a less aggressive approach may be more appropriate. Every modern marketer knows it can take a lifetime to build a brand but only a tweet to ruin it. For more information about this case or the implications it might have for your business, contact Peter Gourri today by email PGourri@rollingsons.co.uk or telephone 0207 611 4848.

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