Saturday, 7 November 2009

The Vegemite/iSnack Trade Mark Saga Down Under: Fiasco or Triumph?


I have always wondered to what extent there is really no such thing as a good trade mark; at the most, there are bad trade marks that you simply wish to avoid. By this I mean that, as long as a trade mark passes muster legally, such that no one can challenge it as being too descriptive, and no third party can assert rights against the mark: it does not really matter at the end of the day what the precise mark actually is.

I thought about this question in reading an article that appeared on 3 November on nyt.com. Entitled "Vegemite Contest Draws Protests", under the byline of Meraiah Foley, the article describes a chain of events that began in July 2009 in connection with finding a name for a new variety of Australia's most distinctive food product--Vegemite. This product is described by the article as "salty, gooey yeast beloved millions of Australians", akin to that icon of the English breakfast table--Marmite. Akin perhaps, but in the eyes (palate?) of millions of Australians, Marmite is clearly inferior to their beloved Vegemite.

I have to admit--I have never understood the culinary attraction of Marmite, which means that I would probably also find Vegemite difficult to swallow. Perhaps the secret of Vegemite is a mix of culture and timing. As observed in the article, well-known Sydney chef Bill Granger observed that "Australian food was really bad until the 1970s: boiled meat and vegetables without any butter or salt. Vegemite was one of the things that actually had any flavor, and that's why it became so incredibly popular It is one of the only foods that is unique to Australia, and people see it as being quintessentially Australian." Whatever the reason, it seems that Vegemite has itself become an icon of Australian food products.

So what does any of this have to do with trade marks? It seems that the producer of Vegemite, Kraft Foods Australia, sought to launch a new variety of the Marmite product (mixed with cream cheese) by means of a contest to find a name for the gooey delight. To this end, Kraft caused jars and jars of the new product to appear on Australian supermarket shelves, with the words "Name Me" on the label. Weeks passed, and more than 3 million jars were sold (1 jar for nearly each 7th denizen of Australia), the product still remaining nameless. On 26 September, Kraft announced the winner via an expensive ad slot that appeared on the televised finals of the Australian football league--"Vegemite iSnack 2.0".

Now I would have thought that with the naming of the new product, the Vegemite business would return to normal. Au contraire. Anger poured in from all directions, inlcuding Facebook, Twitter, and a dedicated website (called "Names that are better than iSnack 2.0"). One online commentator called for the 27-year old designer who had come with the winning name to be "run naked through the streets of Sydney 'as retribution for his cultural crime' ". Another commentator simply said that the name was "un-Australian".

Kraft's reaction (or retribution) was soon to arrive. Four days later it announced that it was putting the name up for a re-vote. The ultimate winner, selected from an online and telephone poll, was --"Cheesybite." Product with the new name will appear on the shelf in a few months, after all of the jars with the "iSnack 2.0" name are sold.

Where Did You Hide the Cheesybite?

A public relations and marketing disaster for Kraft, no? Well, it it is not clear. As for the impact on Kraft's bottom line, the results were in fact spectacularly good. Sales for the "iSnack 2.0"-branded product rose 47% during the first two weeks of sales, while the sales of the original Vegemite product remained unaffected. In other words, Kraft actually increased sales for the Vegemite line. As well, the fact that the product had reached approximately 15% of all Australian households was a marketing achievement that brand managers usually only dream about.

There are those, especially with a conspiratorial bent, who seem convinced that Kraft planned the entire operation as a way of getting the consumers' attention amidst a cluttered and competitive supermarket environment. I rather doubt that, although Kraft's rapid response to the public outcry and subsequent revetting of the name must be applauded as an especially market-savvy move.Getting back to the question I raised at the beginning of this blog post--is there such a thing as a bad trade mark? I guess the answer, based on the Vegemite 'iSnack 2.0" experience, is both "yes" and "no."

On the one hand, the original mark per se seems to have been a bad marketing ploy, taking Australian culture and sensibilities into account. On the other hand, the trade mark issue was quickly resolved, the issue quickly disappeared, and Kraft does not seem to have suffered any harm to its business. So does, or does the mark, not matter? For the last word, I bring the words of Professor of Marketing, Paul Harrison, from Deakin University in Melbourne: "If people like the taste of it, they'll keep buying it--if they don't, they won't. Ultimately, you don't want people thinking too much about your brand, you want people to become habitual about it."

1 comment:

Rob Harrison said...

Neil's posting reminds me of a story that I heard as a young trainee concerning the introduction of the Q8 brand in the Netherlands for petrol stations in the 1980s. Apparently the holder of an older trademark filed suit against the Kuwaiti Petroleum company and the case achieved some publicity in the Benelux countries. It was all resolved in the end - but the rumour was that it was a "set up job" to promote the new brand.

I'd love to know whether the story was true - but it makes a good yarn to brighten up an otherwise turgid lecture on oppositions.