It’s no secret that Red Bull has a strong trademark enforcement strategy. Too strong, according to some. In its defense, IP counsel for Red Bull has stated that
With a brand as famous as Red Bull you can certainly imagine the type of coat-tailing that goes on by third parties and we invest a lot of time and money to stop such infringements as the brand is that important to the company.
I agree with the sentiment behind the statement. But sometimes the sentiment gets lost in translation. In 2014, Red Bull pursued legal action against a U.K. brewery that began selling beer under the brand Redwell. After a strong public reaction, the company clarified that:
Red Bull has all along been willing to allow Redwell to maintain its mark for beer so long as they do not use it for energy drinks.
Fair point, but I can’t help but wonder, was there ever any indication that Redwell might sell energy drinks? Do consumers expect producers of beer to also produce energy drinks (or vice versa)?
Fast forward and Red Bull finds itself in a similar situation. On Jan. 28, 2015 the company filed a Notice of Opposition to Old Ox Brewery’s application to register its OLD OX BREWERY mark in connection with beer, ale, lager, stout and porter. Red Bull claims that the OLD OX BREWERY mark is likely to create confusion with its RED BULL mark.
As a general rule, the two main factors in the analysis involves (1) the similarity of the overall commercial impression of the marks; and (2) the relatedness of the goods. Setting aside the issue of whether energy drinks are related to beer (which deserves an article all on its own), my initial reaction is that OLD OX BREWERY is simply too dissimilar to create a likelihood of confusion. Whether marks create an overall similar commercial impression depends on similarities between sight, sound, and meaning of the mark.
Other than the number of syllables, OLD OX doesn’t sound or look anything like RED BULL. Accordingly, Red Bull is relying heavily on the “meaning” of the marks. And that’s where things get interesting.
It certainly wouldn’t be the first time where the meaning of the marks trumped differences in sight and sound. Yet when this occurs, the goods are usually identical. For example, CYCLONE and TORNADO found confusingly similar in connection with wire fencing or PLEDGE and PROMISE found confusingly similar in connection with furniture wax.
So what is Red Bull’s argument for similarity in meaning? Paragraph 9 of the Notice of Opposition alleges that:
An “ox” and a “bull” both fall within the same class of “bovine” animals and are virtually indistinguishable to most consumers. In addition, an ox is a castrated bull.
Apparently Red Bull has little faith in the ability of consumers to distinguish between various classes of bovine animals. That would include cows, bulls, oxen, yaks, bison, buffalo, steer, longhorns, and apparently antelopes (Wikipedia threw me a curveball there).
But Red Bull’s claim does not rest solely on the bovine nature of oxen and bulls, but also the fact that an ox is a castrated bull. The implied claim being that the image of a castrated bull creates the same commercial impression as the RED BULL mark. If that’s the case, I’d suggest sending those legal fees to the marketing department to fix that issue. I knew that Red Bull gave you wings, but I guess I never asked what they took in return.
In my mind, the shared similarity in meaning of a bovine animal does not overcome the stark differences in sight and sound between the marks. In particular an old ox, having suffered through a particular medical procedure, doesn’t scream “energy drink,” but instead, the polar opposite of the commercial impression that Red Bull tries to create. But maybe I’m missing something, kind of like an old ox.