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Blog: Babycham v Cath Kidston - why alcohol companies must protect their brands

Published:  20 February, 2013

The news that Babycham's parent company Western Wine Holdings Ltd & Accolade Wines Ltd has taken matters to the High Court and accused Cath Kidston's Christmas 2012 range of infringing their trademark rights highlights the strict brand policing which companies in the drinks industry practice.

 

The news that Babycham's parent company Western Wine Holdings Ltd & Accolade Wines Ltd has taken matters to the High Court and accused Cath Kidston's Christmas 2012 range of infringing their trademark rights highlights the strict brand policing which companies in the drinks industry practice.

The Christmas products featured a deer wearing a bow round its neck which Babycham argues is too similar to their own iconic leaping chamois and thus potentially associating the alcoholic drinks brand with products aimed at children. Kidston denies the two images are substantially similar.

This is the latest in a series of high-profile trademark infringement battles to grace the High Courts relating to alcoholic drinks brands, and has distinct parallels with the Budweiser and San Antonio Winery dispute last year in the US. In this case, Budweiser accused the winery of infringing on its polygon shaped logo stretched across the bottle necks, despite the case for confusion being a rather tenuous one.

Brands rely on clear and consistent messages and trademarks serve to protect this. Drinks companies are notoriously protective of their trademarks and litigation is often used as a means of safeguarding brand value.

Alcohol companies have several key concerns relating to their trademarks. Firstly, counterfeit alcohol has recently caused a public-health scare, with large brands such as Diageo's Smirnoff and Glens Vodka being affected by criminals selling vodka-like drinks dressed up in their branding. Although there is no debate as to whether this is legal, the negative impact this can have on the brand's reputation cause serious concern for the brand owners.

Secondly, the alcohol industry is subject to stringent regulations by the government, including banning promotion of alcohol alongside social or sexual success and underage drinking, and enforcing responsible drinking promotion alongside all products. This is a problem for companies when counterfeit is involved, as they have no control over the way in which their products are promoted.

There are also wider concerns about passing off, which relates to creating confusion as to the origin of the product, and this is at the heart of the Babycham and Cath Kidston dispute. Proving passing-off generally involves lengthy and costly legal proceedings as it relates to another firm 'piggybacking' on your brand reputation. The alleged concern for Babycham goes beyond Cath Kidston using their brand reputation for profit, but also that using similar imagery on products targeted at children could cause confusion and bring the Babycham brand into disrepute for breaching alcohol industry regulations.

Babycham's history is very much embedded in its iconic logo, which is a shorthand used by consumers for identifying with their brand and its values and meaning. Babycham was the first alcoholic beverage brand to be advertised on television which rocketed this tipple into the cultural mainstream in the sixties and seventies and it has clear nostalgic value for this reason.

One can't help feeling the Babycham vs. Cath Kidston dispute seems like a case of litigation gone too far. Cath Kidston is renowned for paisley and girly prints and bows are very much in line with this positioning and a cartoon reindeer is commonly associated with Christmas - using the two in conjunction on Christmas products seems like an obvious fit.

As an alcoholic drinks brand with the logo of a cartoon chamois, you are in a position where your logo could very easily appeal to children due to its child-like qualities, and it is important to ensure that your imagery is not in the reach of children. Perhaps this has led to the brand's over-protective action related to its marks. One could just as easily accuse Cath Kidston, or Babycham for that matter, of passing-off Walt Disney Enterprises' Bambi trademark. Perhaps that is the next case to look out for in 2013!

Stuart Whitwell is joint managing director at independent brand consultancy Intangible Business

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