One of the most critical assets of every company is its brand. In fact, it is so important that the brand value of a company can be greater than its stock market valuation.
Since the late nineties, an increasing number of successful companies have been “brand-led” — the concept that the character of the company is more important to its success than its financial plan. Control of the brand is therefore seen as vital to their success.
Recently however, the brand police have become extraordinarily aggressive, to the point where they can lose the support of the general public. Brand professionals are becoming more akin to followers of a religious faith than to a corporate entity.
Instead of applying the brand’s rules with balance and pragmatic thought, corporate zealots have been using their legal muscle to take out small companies and even charities which dare to encroach on their carefully crafted brand.
The latest brand monster is Hugo Boss, which has been sending threatening legal letters to other organisations using the word “Boss”.
Boss Brewing was challenged over the naming of two of its beers, and told it must change them immediately. A charity called Dark Girl Boss also received letters over its name.
A company with annual revenues of nearly €3bn never looks good when it is getting its high-priced lawyers to send intimidating letters to startups and charities over the use of a word.
And it didn’t go unnoticed. To protest against such behaviour from a luxury brand, Joe Lycett, in a mocking move only a comedian can get away with, changed his name by deed poll to Hugo Boss. (Ironically, the move by Lycett is very much in line with his personal brand and could net him an additional £1.5m in content deals.)
In response to Lycett’s name change, Hugo Boss tried to demonstrate that it is not the bully that its legal letters make it seem. It failed: the company released a clumsy statement trying to explain its actions, referring to various types of trademarks.
“We welcome the comedian formerly known as Joe Lycett as a member of the Hugo Boss family,” the company said. “As an open-minded company, we would like to clarify that we do not oppose the free use of language in any way and we accept the generic term ‘boss’ and its various and frequent uses in different languages.”
The attempt to demonstrate a light-hearted attitude to Lycett’s name change by welcoming him to the Boss family was cringeworthy and too late. Despite their claims of being an “open-minded” company, the aggressive attempts to restrict the word “Boss” as a commercial trademark for its own use only suggests otherwise.
How much reputational damage this will cost the fashion company is not yet clear, but it is obvious the battle of the brands has not done it any favours.
This is not the first time this issue has arisen. The Olympics, which has one of the most highly protected brands in the world, has extraordinarily strict rules on its brand use.
In 2012, the Olympics came under fire for targeting small businesses who wanted to celebrate the event, forcing a florist in Stoke-on-Trent to take down a logo in its window.
And Lord Coe, the event organiser, even warned that spectators would not be able to wear a Pepsi logo into the event as Coca-Cola had paid for the sponsorship — a decision that was described as overzealous and unnecessary by former International Olympic Committee members.
Frankly, is this corporate brand policing really in the spirit of the games?
There is a thin line between brand benefit and brand damage. Organisations need to keep their brand attack dogs on a tight leash and be a bit more sensible when it comes to the use of similar names and logos. People love to kick a big company, and few customers remain loyal to the big bullies.
Main image credit: Getty