"Branding" is a hot buzzword these days. Consultants try to teach organizations that are new at it (like small law firms, such as ours, and small businesses in general) how to establish a "brand." More experienced organizations understand the value of their established brands and will vigorously defend them with all the legal means available. Two recent examples involve the State of Vermont and the Taco Bell fast food chain.
The State of Vermont recently directed its legal ire against hamburger giant McDonald’s for the use of the word “maple” in the name of their new breakfast offering, McDonald's Fruit and Maple Oatmeal. According to Bloomberg news reports, Governor Peter Shumlin said the only actual maple ingredient in the product was extracted from the bark of a bush that is a distant relative of the maple tree. The MacDonald's product allegedly did not comply with Vermont's maple laws, which are very specific in the way in which the word “maple” is allowed to be used: Vermont is very protective of its " maple" brand. As Kelly Loftus of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture said, "It is illegal to use the word 'maple' for a product unless the sweetener is 100 percent pure maple. Artificial maple flavoring should be clearly and conspicuously labeled on the principal panel with the term 'artificial flavor'."
McDonald’s reportedly has acquiesced. Bloomberg reports that as of February 1, Vermont customers (and only Vermont customers) can now request that maple syrup or sugar be added to the oatmeal.
Taco Bell has also had to defend a cherished brand. This time, it's not the use of the brand that is at issue; rather, the issue involves the sullying of a valuable brand name. An Alabama law firm has filed a class action lawsuit against Taco Bell. The company is being sued for false advertising for referring to its "seasoned ground beef" in its products. The law firm has alledged that only 35% of the product is beef; the rest is filler, including something called “anti-dusting agent.” MSNBC states that the lawsuit does not seek monetary damages, only that Taco Bell stop claiming that what they are selling is beef.
A statement on the Taco Bell website responds: “Unfortunately, the lawyers in this case elected to sue first and ask questions later -- and got their ‘facts’ absolutely wrong. We plan to take legal action for the false statements being made about our food." While they refer to defending their food, they are really defending their Taco Bell brand.
I find these "brand battles" to be interesting and compelling. I also find the legal and business lessons of these larger, more experienced organizations (whether a state or business entity) to be highly relevant and timely for all of us.