About a week ago, we reported on an interesting case out of the Southern District of Texas involving two competing convenience stores with cartoon animal mascots: Buc-ee’s (a beaver) and Choke Canyon (an alligator).

As someone who has personally visited Buc-ee’s stores, I can tell you that they are quite the destination. Buc-ee’s tend to be absolutely massive, with checkout lanes (everything’s bigger in Texas). People even buy T-shirts with Buc-ee’s logos on the front, with various Texan sayings on the back. I personally own three of them. So it’s kind of an understatement to call Buc-ee’s a “convenience store,” by Minnesota standards. And one can hardly complete a description of Buc-ee’s without noting that it is considered to have the “best bathrooms in Texas.”

Credit: Houston Chronicle

Choke Canyon? Yeah, its locations are pretty big too, but the mascot is far less cuddly. Though, it has a nice saying above the exit that probably wouldn’t work at Buc-ee’s: “See ya later, alligator.”

Credit: Yelp

Buc-ee’s sued Choke Canyon for a variety of claims, including: trademark infringement, dilution, unfair competition, and unjust enrichment. We cover these topics frequently on DuetsBlog (check out the topics column).

I must admit that when I first read about the suit, I could hardly believe it. I agree with my colleague that “the best I see from this case is that Choke Canyon may make consumers think of Buc-ee’s stores and beaver, but consumers don’t seem likely to assume that that there is a connection between the two.” And I also think that ” if it weren’t May, I’d assume this was an April Fools Day joke.”

But it’s no joke, and after a four-day jury trial and six hours of deliberation, Buc-ee’s won on all fronts. Specifically, the jury answered six questions (downloadable here):

  1. On Buc-ee’s claims for trademark infringement of its Buc-ee’s Logo, do you find for Buc-ee’s or Choke Canyon?
    • Jury answer: Buc-ee’s
    • Interestingly, the jury sent one note to the District Judge during deliberations, asking “Does the logo to be considered by the jury in rendering an infringement judgment include a version without words?” To which the Judge responded, “Yes.”
  2. Do you find that Buc-ee’s Logo was famous throughout Texas before Choke Canyon’s use of the Choke Canyon Logo?
    • Jury answer: Yes
  3. Because the jury answered “yes” to question 2, they skipped question 3 (which pertained to specific geographic areas in Texas).
  4. On Buc-ee’s claim for dilution by blurring of its Buc-ee’s Logo, do you find for Buc-ee’s or Choke Canyon?
    • Jury answer: Buc-ee’s
  5. On Buc-ee’s claim for unfair competition, do you find for Buc-ee’s or Choke Canyon?
    • Jury answer: Buc-ee’s
  6. On Buc-ee’s claim for unjust enrichment, do you find for Buc-ee’s or Choke Canyon?
    • Jury Answer: Buc-ee’s

I am surprised by the generality of the questions presented to the jury, and it’s interesting that the jury was not asked about damages–perhaps the issue was bifurcated and will be tried to a different jury.

Question 1, and the jury note, suggests to me that the jury was allowed to focus purely on the similarities between the cartoon animals in the above logos, disregarding Choke Canyon logo’s ribbon stating “Choke Canyon Travel Centers.” But even then, the only obvious similarities are the orientation of the mascots, the yellow background, the wearing of a hat, and their smiles and red tongues. It is hard to believe those basic, nominal characteristics are enough to show consumer confusion and infringement. Maybe Choke Canyon has a good chance on appeal or at judgment notwithstanding the verdict.

And I cannot help but wonder, in view of Question 2, whether the fact that Buc-ee’s mark was famous throughout Texas prior to Choke Canyon’s use of its alligator mark played the most important role in the jury’s verdict. Perhaps the jury felt that Choke Canyon intended to ride on Buc-ee’s mark. Indeed, at closing argument, Buc-ee’s counsel reminded the jurors that a survey showed more than 80% of Texans recognize the Buc-ee’s logo. But I tend to agree with Choke Canyon’s closing argument that the lawsuit seems directed at stifling competition, rather than truly protecting consumers–pointing to Buc-ee’s own prior statement that it only noticed the potential for consumer confusion when Choke Canyon began buying property in towns where Buc-ee’s operates. I find it hard to believe that a reasonable consumer would seriously confuse the two mascots and think they were associated. But apparently two actual-consumer witnesses testified in Buc-ee’s favor on this point. Texas sure is a strange place sometimes.

 —Alan Bergstrom, Beyond Philosophy


IHOP (International House of Pancakes) recently filed a lawsuit to prevent another group, International House of Prayer, from using its trademarked acronym. According to the trademark infringement filing, IHOP has repeatedly asked the religious group to drop the use of the acronym IHOP, which is a registered trademark for its franchised chain of restaurants and has been in use since 1973. The International House of Prayer has been using the name and acronym for about 10 years. IHOP claims the prayer group’s use of the initials creates confusion for the public, as well as intentionally creating a name and acronym which it knew was famous and well-recognized in order to benefit from its broad awareness and notoriety. The last straw prompting the lawsuit seems to be the prayer group’s recent offering of food at some of its locations.

I don’t know about you, but it seems to me (and I’m not an attorney, just a branding guy) that there are several issues at play here. First, one could argue that the two organizations are in very different sectors and that the public shouldn’t be confused between the two (even though the prayer group now serves its members/guests something to eat while they come to pray). Consider this scenario. Imagine the possible confusion that could ensue if IHOP (prayer group) were to be caught up in some type of “scandal”, such as tax fraud, or discrimination. In our world of media sound bites, someone scanning headlines that read “IHOP charged with tax fraud”, or “IHOP faces discrimination lawsuit”. Many could easily think the IHOP (pancakes) was the brand under investigation and affect patronage.

One may feel that this is the case of big corporate America picking on the innocence of a small non-profit religious group, but, if the law is interpreted to apply to some groups and not others, then Pandora’s Box is opened. One must wonder why the prayer group didn’t choose another equally meaningful name, like Global Place of Prayer (GPOP), or Best Place to Pray (BPTP), or even International Place of Prayer (IPOP)…probably because none of the other possibilities had the existing brand name recognition that IHOP had. To me, that’s trademark infringement, pure and simple. It seems to me that when someone intentionally seeks to benefit from the goodwill and investments made to create market familiarity and brand awareness (brand equity) by creating a similar brand name, the line has been crossed.

Second, I believe the reason we have trademark laws is to protect the investment and reputation that years of hard work and management have been spent to build up the value of a brand name (so that someone else can’t just come along and use it to their benefit without the investment and recognition that the originator put into it). As brand managers and brand owners, we know the cost (both in sweat equity, as well as financial equity) required to build strong brands. It doesn’t seem fair for someone else to “steal” or “borrow” that brand value without permission or purchase (licensing arrangements exist for that reason).

I wonder if IBM would have done the same if the prayer group had named itself International Bible Mission and used the associated acronym…

What do you think? Does IHOP (pancakes) have a case? Who should prevail?