It’s not likely that coffee giant Starbucks will be grabbing a cold one—or, sitting down for coffee, for that matter—with anyone from Exit 6 Pub and Brewery any time soon. Jeff Britton, the owner of Exit 6 (a small craft beer nano-brewery in Cottleville, Missouri) received a cease-and-desist letter in mid-December from the law firm in charge of protecting Starbucks’ trademarks. Apparently, a number of Exit 6 patrons casually dubbed one of Britton’s stout concoctions a “Frappicino” back in January of 2013, and three of them posted about it on Untappd, the social media network for beer enthusiasts. The poorly-spelled moniker caught the attention of the Starbucks legal team, and they respectfully asked that the brewery discontinue use of the name that so closely resembled that of their trademarked Frappuccino frozen coffee drink. Britton immediately complied, renaming his brew the “F-Word,” as per his sarcastic, yet remarkably good-natured response to the legal order.
None of this would have made the news, however, had Exit 6 not posted about the incident on its Facebook page on December 26th. Along with a brief summary of the matter, Britton published copies of the cease-and-desist letter, his tongue-in-cheek reply…and a scan of the $6 check that he sent along with his response, indicating that it represented “the full amount of profit gained from the sale of those three beers.” (He said they should put it towards the legal fees of the attorney who wrote him the letter.) The story quickly went viral, and by the time 2014 rolled around only a few days later, Britton was being interviewed not only by local news stations, but by the likes of Fox and ESPN. Online coverage exploded as well, with stories appearing everywhere, from NPR and The Huffington Post to legal blog Above the Law. Most outlets also published the now-infamous correspondence in its entirety.
In this case, while Starbucks clearly had cause to be concerned about dilution of their trademark, their letter seems to have turned into a PR backfire. With news and social media channels lighting up with people virtually high-fiving Exit 6 for putting Starbucks in its place, the strip mall brewery is reportedly enjoying an influx of new customers, thanks to all the free publicity, and online commenters are claiming to swear off Starbucks altogether.
Trademark infringement is a very real concern, and companies have the right and the responsibility to protect their registered marks, else they risk diluting—or even losing— them. A few years ago, such a case would probably not have gotten much traction (if any) in the news. The trademark holder would send its letter, the suspected infringer would either comply or go to trial, the two parties would “stand presently at the great judgment seat,” and the case would be fought, settled or won behind the closed doors of the courtroom. Over time, however, the court of public opinion has become a lot more vocal; and thanks to social media, it’s very common that customers (or even the general public) are driving the perception of brands even more than the brands themselves are. Furthermore, many people can’t resist taking the side of a small-business David when he’s facing off against a big ol’ corporate Goliath meanie. For this reason, companies nowadays have to think long and hard about whether sending a cease-and-desist order to say, a small business in the boondocks, will be worth their while or too big a risk.