Lessons from a Pure Blonde (TM)
I’m sure you’ve heard of the Pure BlondeTM brand of beer. When it was released by Carlton & United Breweries (CUB), it was one of Australia’s most successful beer launches. I had the privilege of interviewing CUB’s Intellectual Property Manager, Mathew O’Keefe, about the Pure BlondeTM brand. I think the issues are relevant to anyone wanting to protect a brand.
I’ve shared a transcript of the interview below. I found the interview fascinating and I hope you do too.
Justin Blows: Pure BlondeTM is a great brand. Can you tell us the story behind it?
Mathew: We consider ourselves a leading brewer, with an aim to be innovative – though not all our innovations are an absolute hit.
Hoping for a hit back in 2004, we looked into launching a low carbohydrate beer. The market research indicated it wouldn’t sell in Australia, but as soon as the trade mark Pure BlondeTM was suggested internally, we thought we might be onto a winner. The product sold with minimal advertising. It turned out that people really like a low carb beer with a great name, taste and label.
The Pure BlondeTM trade mark is a very important part of the package. “Pure Blonde” means different things to different people, but most people think it is just great fun.
Some people focus on the ‘purity’ concept. Others were thinking about something else — people were soon ordering ‘a couple of blondies’. The men may have been thinking of Paris Hilton (who may not be a pure blonde, strangely enough) and the women may have been thinking of a nice blonde gentleman. The TV ad which came later, set in “Brewtopia”, really tapped into that thinking well.
Justin: The name is fantastically good, but it has a few problems on the legal front.
Mathew: That’s right, legally it’s a compromise. “Pure” is descriptive which is not suitable for trade mark protection, and “Blonde” is associated with a style of beer (think a Belgian Blonde Ale for example), so Pure BlondeTM was always going to be very difficult to register.
Even though we couldn’t protect Pure BlondeTM immediately, it was too good not to use. Pretty soon the imitation was endless, including Platinum Blonde, Maxx Blonde, Premium Blonde, Classic Blonde, and about 30 other products with blonde in the name. Now, “Blonde” beer in Australia effectively means a low carb beer. We still think PURE BLONDE is the highest quality offering, but we have lost some distinctiveness in the marketplace because the trade mark was so difficult to protect. Of course, the exact name itself is now protected by the brand’s reputation and goodwill.
Justin: So what did the pure blonde teach you?
Mathew: It certainly reminded us that the balance between great branding and great legal protection is a fine and delicate one!
Whilst words like “PURE” and “BLONDE” were always going to be difficult to protect in isolation, it was disappointing that our labelling was so closely mimicked by some products.
We now proactively register all our key brand assets, including our full bottles, cans and outer packaging, so that our competitors know exactly what we are prepared to protect and fight for.
Previously, companies tended to only register their names, logos and labels but those days have long gone.
Justin: Did you consider relying on copyright protection for your packaging? It’s an automatic right that you don’t need to register.
Mathew: Good question Justin, but copyright doesn’t signal “keep off!” as effectively as a trade mark because there is no searchable register of copyright.
Registering trade marks across the board is a far more compelling strategy for us.
Justin: So what do your competitors see when they look at the online trade mark register?
Mathew: Our competitors see that we have over 1500 trademarks, so whilst we’re not quite at the UNILEVER level yet, we’re certainly well covered. When our competitors inspect the trademark database they understand how serious we are and understand what aspects of our packaging they should not try to imitate. They are free to work around our trade marks as long as they don’t do anything that could lead to consumer confusion.
Our biggest competitors understand this well. They understand that copying our trade marks would dilute their own brand propositions, so communicating our IP position clearly effectively works on a number of levels for all involved.
Justin: Thank you for sharing some of your IP strategy with us — but wouldn’t it be better to keep it secret?
Mathew: We’re open about our IP strategy because it communicates to our competitors, shareholders and the public how seriously we take our brands and IP protection.
Being open is really part of the strategy. Our competitors are less likely to imitate our brands and products if we clearly articulate our IP position.
We have unique brands that sell for more because our competitors can’t closely replicate them. Our view is that an IP strategy that our competitors know and understand is much stronger than one that is kept quiet.