Trademark disputes have always been a thorn in the side of many small business owners and entrepreneurs. Creative business ideas and ventures, even when they are developed with the best intentions, sometimes run afoul of coming a bit too close to a larger company’s branding.
When this is the case, a trademark battle usually erupts and, most of the time, the company with the deeper pocket usually wins the battle. No doubt about it, this usually means the small business owner loses the battle. But there are plenty of other cases where a small business owner or entrepreneur creates a brand that is not intended to blatantly infringe but coincidentally pushes the envelope of the entrepreneurial spirit. From the small business owner’s perspective, these larger companies should back off.
But a funny thing happened on the way to trademark litigation. Social media has made it so that small business owners can get large groups of people on their side, ultimately shaming the larger companies into dropping the lawsuit against the small business owner.
This new social media battle significantly impacts small business PR because of its ability to alter the perception of both companies. In a classic ‘David versus Goliath’ battle, throngs of people come to the defense of the small business owner, who is perceived to being pushed around by the larger, corporate giant.
The Wall Street Journal recently wrote about this issue illustrating a few key examples of small business owners turning to social media as a way to drum up support for the litigation campaign. In the story a law professor says the new tactic illustrates how startups can take advantage of social networks as a way of building a perception of being picked on by the larger company.
The story cited an example of a Vermont businessman who sold T-shirts that said “Eat More Kale.” Chik-fil-A thought that was too close to the company’s “Eat Mor Chikin” slogan and sent out a cease-and-desist letter. Thousands of fans lined up on Facebook in support of the Vermont businessman and the large fast-food restaurant has not pursued the matter.
Keep in mind that in some cases the small business owner isn’t necessarily driving the shame campaign. When entrepreneurs build their brands the right way they develop fiercely loyal followers. Since the Internet has the ability to spread information quickly, these followers take it upon themselves to begin social shaming campaigns in an effort to defend the small business they have fallen in love with.
Here are a few tips for small business owners looking to leverage social media PR campaigns that want to raise pressure on larger companies to drop their trademark suits:
1: Understand that you will not be successful if you really are trying to play off a larger company’s brand or marketing. It doesn’t matter how many supporters you can get, if what you are doing is blatant trademark infringement, you are doing business the wrong way.
2: Make your social media PR campaign about information and fairness, not about emotion. Keep your position professional and leave all the name-calling out of it.
3: Use all of your social media platforms as a way to send out these facts, information and any updates. Use Twitter, Facebook and your blog to keep your community updated so they have all the latest information, too.
4: Foster a true sense of community so that your followers, customers and fans can also provide feedback, insight, advice and share their general thoughts.
5: Encourage your community to use their blogs and social media platforms to spread the word about any information or position you want to get out to the masses.
6: Keep the media updated by sending out press releases, story pitches and tip sheets, and link over to your blog where they can get even more background information on the matter.
7: Leverage YouTube to offer video updates. Use this opportunity to be the spokesperson on the issue. People love sharing videos which will spread the word even more. Additionally, when you link to your YouTube channel when sending updates to the media, television news producers will see how you come across in front of the camera and be encouraged to book you to discuss the matter.
8: Know when to pull your foot off the gas. Sometimes it’s best to let the legal system run its course before you pour fuel on the fire. Always consult with an attorney and make sure your social media campaign won’t hurt you in the long run.
If you find yourself being trademark bullied by a larger company, follow these tips and see if you can arm yourself with a large support network ready to help you defend your position.
Win Trademark Concept Photo via Shutterstock
Thanks John, this is really good info!
Thanks, Ashley. Social media has changed so many things about the world of business.
I agree with you. Maintaining professionalism will give a stronger standing of your business in the built community. Also the concept of video sharing is very powerful. The message will have a voice and a face and therefore more impact. Thank for sharing these amazing tips!
I am an intellectual property attorney who works with small business owners. Some of my clients have been on the receiving end of bullying by large corporations with thin arguments but deep pockets; I enjoyed this article.
Good article on how to leverage social media in defense of a “cease and desist” letter. Some of these letters represent just a bully tactic and others represent a legit infringement that could be litigated, so consulting a trademark attorney as soon as you receive the letter is good advice.
Of course, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If you have a product/company name or slogan, you should seriously consider trademarking it. There are a number of services available online that only charge a few hundred dollars to conduct a professional trademark search and prepare your trademark application, which I discuss in our blog. If the search identifies potential infringement concerns, it could run into thousands of dollars of legal charges to sort it out. Although it sounds pricey, it’s probably less costly than being suddenly forced to drop a popular product name or defend a trademark suit in court.
A poor excuse of a law where preditory practices are used more often than not by big corporations to drive small businesses out of business. No checks and balances for small businesses who have done due diligence and are not infringing. No proof needed to file suit and use the system to drive out competition. Lawyers on both sides practicing in trade mark/ trade dress don’t push back because following the process guarantees them money until the under dog runs out of resources. Our county is built on small businesses, but I guess we don’t have the lobyists to change the law. Shame on America,