A few weeks ago, there was much hub-bub in the craft brewing world as Lagunitas filed a lawsuit against Sierra Neva alleging that the particular use of “IPA” on the label of Sierra’s Hop Hunter IPA constituted trademark infringement. See below for the comparison.
In essence, the lawsuit alleged that that Lagunitas had rights in the font and design used with the letters IPA, and that Sierra Nevada’s use of IPA was too similar.
The online backlash was rapid and large. How much protect could such a graphic, featuring the generic letters “IPA” really have? And Sierra Nevada’s lettering was not identical. And how many other beer labels use IPA in big bold lettering?
In a rare move, the complaining party quickly backed down and dropped the lawsuit. Not only was that fact and the speed with which it was done rather astonishing — you can imagine the discussions with the very same lawyers who advised them to file the lawsuit — but their public apology was tremendous It sounded sincere and not written exclusively by attorneys. Lagunitas posted the following message on their website on January 14, just one day after the lawsuit came to light and just two days after the lawsuit was filed:
Yesterday in the Lagunitas nexus of the Twitterverse was the worst day ever in 23 years of growing our brewery. Worst. Growing a business over time sometimes involves defending that business. Defending a business requires answers to Hard Questions. Questions like: Are our Foundations Strong? Are our Flavors right? Are our Labels, our very identity, something that we can defend? There are many courts in the world in which to find those answers. For us, over the last month, one court was a series of rebuffed phone calls to another brewer. Another was a court of law. Today was in the hands of the ultimate court; The Court of Public Opinion and in it we got an answer to our Question; Our flagship IPA’s registered federal trademark has limits. We don’t know the answer to every question beforehand so we feel around for the edges and we try to learn. Today we were seriously schooled and we heard you well…! The Customer is always right and here in the 21st Century that maxim is truer than ever. Today we will Drop the Infringement Suit & get back to work answering other questions instead. We needed to raise the question because it matters, and through the miracle of Twitter the answer came back much sooner than we thought and in a different Court than we expected. The best thing is to have friends. Can we say thank you?
Other’s accused of trademark mismanagement or trademark bullying should take notice — mistakes happen. Poor judgment exists. By owning the mistake and acknowledging it, some good can potentially balance the harm done to the brand that erred in its trademark judgement.
Note: While Chik-fil-A appears to have backed down from their complaints about EAT MORE KALE they have never issued any kind of a statement, explanation or apology. Their brand image may have suffered considerably less embarrassment and ridicule if they had done something similar to Lagunitas.