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Brand Bullies

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You'd think that lawyers for the Ford Motor Company have something more serious to worry about than a lone Scandinavian and his website.

You'd be wrong. The Detroit attorneys slapped Swedish Volvo enthusiast Hans Rekestad with a $100,000 lawsuit. Rekestad's offense? He runs a site called classicvolvos.com, a celebration of the boxy, trusty old cars that are part of his country's cultural and technological heritage. One area of the site is used to sell and trade Volvo parts. The problem is that Ford owns Volvo, and that the U.S. company's pettifoggers want Rekestad to take down the site in the interest of "protecting our brand equity." This is followed by lawyerly phrases about Ford's trademark, and lofty assertions about the carmaker's reputation.

Fine. Let's look at Ford's reputation, shall we? It is pretty much in tatters, no Swedish assistance needed. First came the deadly Firestone debacle, for which the carmaker must shoulder its share of the blame. Then, last month, unrelated to the tire fiasco, there was the recall of 1.7 million Ford vehicles in California, a measure ordered by a judge who found that Ford had displayed a pattern of recklessness and evasion in failing to address, for almost twenty years, a dangerous flaw in the cars' ignition modules. On the heels of that came Ford's admission that there are serious quality issues with its new vehicle, the Focus. A defective rear hub retaining nut and a faulty cruise control cable are among the problems. A recall was issued for 351,000 Focus cars.

Any smart company in that kind of predicament would marshal its legal eagles to stave off the consequences of the recent misadventures. It would try like mad not to court more controversy. Not Ford. In a petty side skirmish, the car giant now uses its judicial muscle to bully the very people it should be courting - diehard fans of its brands. The company must have taken a page from one of the most unenlightened corporate playbooks around, that of Mattel. The California toymaker habitually "defends" it trademark by sending aggressive legal threats to people who publish Barbie newsletters and Barbie websites.

The lawyers always insist it's a trademark issue. But trademark legislation was written to fend off unfair competition. It exists to prevent businesses from being deceptive, so you can't start a pizza joint and call it Domino's. But if you love Domino's food, or hate it, and want to speak up about your pizza preference, no one should stop you. Trademark law was never meant to be used as a club against free speech or free trade. The disputes about Barbie and Volvo (there have been similar ones concerning Paramount's Star Trek and a menagerie of Disney characters) are never really about protecting legitimate trademarks. That's just a handy smokescreen. They are about the corporate angst over the loss of control. If you can't control it, you can't spin it. That mortifies old-economy companies.

The hard-nosed attempts to take down classicvolvo.com (so far, Rekestad is not budging) are fantastically at odds with what ought to be any company's communications goal. The first rule of branding is, Make them like you. The second rule is, Make them trust you. By strongarming the little guy, Ford does neither. It doesn't enhance its brand; it damages it. A spokesman for Volvo in Sweden acknowledged as much. He told a Wall Street Journal reporter, "Rekestad is our friend. What Ford did is shooting down sparrows with ballistic missiles."

And speaking of ballistic, Swedish newspapers were outraged by Ford's Yankee arrogance. It can't have helped local car sales.

Whether classicvolvos.com will be around next year is anybody's guess. But a certain Detroit carmaker should realize that you it's one thing to win in court, and another to win in the court of public opinion.

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