Taking Your Brand From David to Goliath the German Way

Jako and Jack Wolfskin Show the Perils of Aggressive Legal Action in the Age of Social Media

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Gunnar Brune
Gunnar Brune
If marketing is about conversation, then the least conversational move is taking legal action to protect your brands. In a world of constant chatter, lawsuits can actually serve to cause the damage that the legal action was meant to prevent. In recent weeks, two German companies discovered this. Neither are megabrands, but both are quite successful and have a devoted customer base that spreads that acts as advocates.

Jako is a 20-year-old brand offering equipment for teams that play football, volleyball and other sports. Many clubs rely on its service and the brand grew over the years and is now sold in 40 countries. Earlier this year, a local blogger, Trainer Baade, commented on Jako's new logo with some not-so-nice words, and Jako ordered their lawyers to take action. For four months lawyers and Trainer Baade fought without public notice.

By August, the blogger had to pay more than 5,000 euros in fines and fees, and the blogging community stepped on his side for solidarity and protection. The issue escalated. The whole community of digital types in Germany started to discuss the case -- and, by then, it was not about the design of the logo. Suddenly a relatively small company --Jako is no Nike or Adidas -- had a nasty portrait of itself painted by the social networks. And then the discussion grew into something bigger.

The print press started to cover the story and Jako faced a major PR problem. On Sept. 3 the company issued a press release with an apology to calm the turmoil. The case became iconic with the German trade press. At this point the whole marketing community could have learned a simple lesson.

But it didn't.

Jack Wolfskin is a similar case. It is a popular producer of outdoor equipment that started as a private label in 1981 and became a premium brand shortly after selling their products around the world. Its logo is a paw, a popular icon indeed, which has led to a number of conflicts in the past. Like Jako, Jack Wolfskin is a sympathetic David. Last week they decided it would be better to act like Goliath.

On the platform Dawanda, mostly female users sell their homemade items, and paws can be found on many of the designs, such as this shirt. Last week Jack Wolfskin started legal action stating copyright infringement against the woman who sewed the glittery cat-and-paws shirt, as well as other users of the site. With the Jako incident fresh in mind, the outcry started Oct. 16, beginning with the coverage of the influential advertising blogger Werbeblogger.

Within hours the server broke down, the post was mirrored by other bloggers and discussions about it exploded on Twitter and Facebook over the weekend. The national press, including weekly magazine Der Spiegel, started to take notice, and the outcome of the story of David vs. Goliath became somewhat predictable. It's worth remembering that outdoor clothing is a favorite among many digital natives, including some who responded, and the brand really hurt the feelings of many customers by taking legal action against the women -- whether it was legally right or not.

It's evident that lawyers and marketing and communication pros alike need a finer sense of when to deploy a legal action on behalf of a brand. What can be a strategic move in corporate competition can lead to victories that are Pyrrhic at best. What is a blog with 400 readers in comparison to a story covered by national press? Prior to taking immediate legal action, a company should enter the conversation. Jako and Jack Wolfskin learned the hard way.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gunnar Brune is managing director of Lowe Deutschland in Hamburg.
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