Rights or Reputation? What’s more important?

There have been a couple of trademark stories in 2017 that have caught my attention, but for very different reasons, flagging up the important question for any brand owner: what’s more important to my business, my rights or my reputation?

And a valid question it is indeed.

When conservation charity The National Trust for Scotland pursued a small local business Hilltrek for its unauthorised use of the trademarked term “Glencoe” in 2017, it was accused of bullying and many of its members threatened to cancel their membership in protest against the organisation’s stance. While the NTS were well within their rights to pursue Hilltrek, as official owners of the trademark in that category, they did not truly consider the reputational damage that could be done as a result of protecting those rights. Rights they had only acquired two years previously.

Later in 2017, Sean Connery confirmed that he too had trademarked his name to protect it from commercial misuse in the promotion of a whole range of goods and services. One can only assume that an organisation trying to launch the “Sean Connery Martini” without authorisation and endorsement by the star would, rightly, be pursued for commercial damages.

Although both trademarks were applied for within weeks of each other, and are both legally the same, they couldn’t be more different in terms of what they offer the owner.

Sean Connery is both a person and a brand. Attaching his name to a product gives it a clear demarcation of trust and endorsement. Sean Connery has invested in developing his brand over several decades. The “Sean Connery” brand adds value to the product and, as such, should be deservedly protected in law.

Glencoe is a place. It is not, technically speaking, a brand. There has been little to no investment in the development of Glencoe as a brand. Attaching the word “Glencoe” to a product does not, de facto, give it additional value. And this is where the NTS have failed to understand the true value of trademarking. It’s only worth protecting if it has value. You can’t protect a word then hope to create commercial value out of it as a result. It’s precisely the reason that NTS decided to trademark the word in the first instance, but it is also, arguably, what they (and their lawyers) have attempted to do by exploiting their rights over the investment that companies such as Hilltrek have made over three decades – and the public has, quite rightly, called foul.

The cost of NTS pursing their rights? Their reputation, of course.

Trademarks exist to protect value propositions, and a brand offers a value proposition. A true trademark has meaning, context and quality. If ever there was proof that words, alone, are not brands, this is it.