It's your classic David and Goliath story: small-town N.C. brewing duo Nicole Dexter and Chip Owen of Innovation Brewing are now facing a federal trademark complaint from Bell's Brewery based in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Let's do a quick weigh-in:
Bell's Brewery is thirty years old. They're currently producing 20 beers and put out 310,000 barrels last year. Innovation Brewing was established in 2013, offers 9 "main stay" brews on tap plus rotating seasonals, makes about 500 barrels of beer and mainly distributes in their little corner of Jackson County.
Bell's Brewery tagline: "Inspired brewing."
Innovation Brewing tagline: "Fermentation. Experimentation. Innovation."
But Bell's is now arguing that their unregistered slogan, Bottling innovation since 1985, could be confused with Innovation Brewing. Note that this unregistered slogan isn't used on packaging or barely anywhere on their site save for a Google+ page and a handful of merchandise.
Since the trademark dispute broke across news, as of this writing, Innovation Brewing has received almost 700 new Facebook fans, some Twitter action, encouragement for a GoFundMe project to pay legal fees, etc. Meanwhile...Bell's Brewery? Well, in addition to individuals and venues boycotting their products, their Facebook page isn't looking too pretty:
At some point, Bell's Brewery stopped looking at the people behind Innovation Brewing. They stopped looking at people at all. They saw the name, they perceived a threat, and they worried that some entity was going to steal a slice of their pie while their backs were turned to the windowsill.
They embraced fear.
If you're an entrepreneur, you cannot embrace the fear that your market is only a limited size and you have to conquer all of it. If you think there are only a certain number of people around to buy your product and you have to control all of them, you're doing it wrong. There are plenty of people in the world, and depending on your product, many of these potential customers may overlap. Too often business owners ask, What if another company takes my market share away? instead of How can I redefine my industry and create a new market that wasn't there before?
Funnily enough, the word caught up in both breweries' fates is innovation. So why isn't Bell's Brewery taking the opportunity to innovate their brand image and push it further? They've established solid systems, certain expectations, and a big audience over 30 years, which is an accomplishment. Now as any good entrepreneur should, they must challenge those systems at some point and ask themselves, "What are we going to do next?"
They could happily retire the slogan instead of clinging to it. How many unregistered, unofficial slogans did Coca-Cola go through? Apple? FedEx? Ford? You have to change, experiment, grow. A company goes through phases like a kid. These big brands were influenced and challenged by a number of competitors, direct and indirect marketing campaigns, reviewers, and emerging messages in each of those industries. If you cling to the image of your company as an immoveable boulder, your company will just erode instead.
There are times when protecting your knowledge, your catchphrase, your creations are important. This isn't one of them.
Simply going by a traditional PR rulebook, sure, Bell's is doing everything right: a short update message, a graceful silence in respect for legal constraints, and carrying on business as usual. But it is the responsibility of every business owner to determine whether the public relations strategies that have come before you are the best strategies to implement now. If given the opportunity by another person to push your boundaries and uncover opportunities for your company to reinvent and grow itself, why would you bite the hand that extends in welcome? Why wouldn't you invite that next generation of innovators in the industry under your wing and say, Let's see what you can do?
Hopefully Bell's Brewery won't erode while attempting to weather their own fears.