Is all publicity good publicity?

Is it merely a coincidence that just as students return to university, the press have picked on to the news that Red Bull, the energy drink brand, has opposed the registration of gin brand, Bullards, trademark?

I’m not a legal advisor but it’s clear that sometimes an organisation needs to protect its brand from copycats and the like. It’s also evident that some big organisations might want to stamp on smaller businesses for whatever reason. Occasionally there are times when it seems some organisations decide to threaten other firms with legal action as much to raise their profile than to protect their brands.

Now I’m sure there are lots of technical reasons why Red Bull is opposing an application by Bullards a small gin-maker based in Norwich, to register their trademark and threatening them with legal action. To be fair, their trademark application is alleged to include energy drinks, events and non-alcoholic beverages. I note that in 2016 they applied for the following classes:

  • Class 032 – Beers; non-alcoholic beverages; mineral and aerated waters; fruit beverages and fruit juices; syrups and other non-alcoholic preparations for making beverages.
  • Class 033 – Alcoholic beverages, except beers; alcoholic preparations for making beverages.

Energy drinks aren’t mentioned but based on what other brands have submitted, they tend to be included in Class 032.

In August 2020, it appears that Bullards has added to the list of classes, none of which include energy drinks. It was this application that was opposed by Red Bull in April 2021.

Image of a green bottle of  Bullard's London Dry Gin
Image taken from https://bullardsspirits.co.uk 19/9/21

According to a BBC report, there are two main issues Red Bull is concerned about – the use of ‘bull’ in the brand name and the ‘likelihood of confusion on behalf of the public’.

This is where someone like me, an expert witness in marketing might be approached. I would seek to determine whether there is any chance that the target markets for each brand are likely to cross over and if so, whether the relevant segment is likely to be confused by the two brands’ offering.

I have never drunk Red Bull. Hence, I won’t presume to know what the outcome of any marketing research might be.

However, I do wonder if this might be a marketing ploy by Red Bull…

While the energy drinks market has continued to grow year on year, it’s clear that it has entered the maturity stage of the product life cycle. Indeed, Mordor Intelligence suggest that Red Bull experienced a steep decline in sales during lockdown in 2020 due to production issues, disturbance in the supply chain and fewer sales generally due to lockdown norms, although Statistica suggests that retail sales of Red Bull energy drinks in the UK will grow from £223m in 2020 to nearly £256m in 2021.

Image of man in hat (blurred face) holding can of red bull energy drink in front of him.
Source: Canva, image by Billy Gax

Given the costs of TV advertising, might some brands not consider making ‘legal noises’ to obtain some publicity, perhaps with no intention of going to court? I really don’t know if this is what motivates Red Bull’s actions in this case, but it’s interesting that the news hits the press just at the start of the new academic year for undergraduates – a key target market for the brand.

What do you think?

WARNING: Please note that I am not a solicitor or legally trained. I’m a marketer and any opinions stated are my own. If you have any concerns about your business’s intellectual property, please discuss these with a qualified legal practitioner who specialises in this area.

References (all accessed on 19/09/21):

BBC (2021). Red Bull in trademark dispute with English gin firm Bullards. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-norfolk-58607923

Intellectual Property Office (2021) Trade mark number UK00003520508. https://trademarks.ipo.gov.uk/ipo-tmcase/page/History/1/UK00003520508; https://trademarks.ipo.gov.uk/ipo-tmcase/page/Results/1/UK00003520508

Mordor Intelligence (not dated) United Kingdom Energy Drink Market – Growth, Trends, Covid-19 Impact, and Forecasts (2021-2026). https://www.mordorintelligence.com/industry-reports/united-kingdom-energy-drink-market.

Statista (2021) Retail sales revenue of the leading energy drink brands in the United Kingdom (UK) in 2021 (in million GBP) https://www.statista.com/statistics/1193635/leading-energy-drink-brands-retail-sales-revenue-uk/#:~:text=As%20of%202020%2C%20the%20leading%20energy%20drink%20brand,generated%20approximately%20189%20million%20British%20pounds%20that%20year

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