For decades, the Comité Champagne, a French industry trade organization dedicated to protecting the French Champagne region's world famous vintners, have aggressively policed the marketplace and prosecuted any unauthorized use of the word "champagne."
Such is the reason that the bottle of California's slightly cheaper bubbly you may have opened on New Year's Eve was termed "sparkling white wine," and not "champagne."
According to the Comité's website, the "reputation and importance of the Champagne appellation has long been a source of envy for other producers, spawning hundreds of imitations every year...Champagne is a unique product born of the shared heritage of Winegrowers and Champagne Houses whose livelihoods depend on protecting that heritage."
The website claims that the Comité has a "duty to protect consumers against misleading claims made for any wines, beverages or products that trade off Champagne’s reputation as an appellation of guaranteed origin and quality."
|The Champagne Regions of France|
Accordingly, it is the stated policy of the Comité Champagne to prosecute anyone who misappropriates the reputation or identity of the Champagne appellation.
It seems perfectly reasonable for the Comité to try and thwart counterfeit champagne beverages, and is has done so very effectively.
However, the Comité also seems to take its role as defender of the appellation so seriously that it attacks any uses of the word "champagne" to describe color or style, even when not used in connection with beverages.
Most recently, for example, Apple introduced the new iPhone 5 series, in a metallic gold color initially planned to be described as "champagne."
However, the Comité saw fit to send a warning letter to Apple before the phone was launched, contending that the term "champagne" was a trademarked geographic designation, and that Apple's use would inevitably lead to litigation. Apple backed off, and now simply calls the color "gold."
The Wall Street Journal now reports that the Comité is at it again, this time threatening a glass bottled water distributor that had planned on using the tagline: "the Champagne of waters."
Not wanting to fight a lawsuit, the distributor dropped the tag line.
|The Gold/"Champagne" iPhone|
In the past, the Comité has also successfully barred the use of the term ‘Champagne’ in connection with unauthorized toothpastes, mineral water for pets, toilet paper, underwear and shoes.
But is such aggressive policing of the wider marketplace really necessary?
Traditionally, brand protection advocates would argue that it is critical to protect the marketplace against any and all unauthorized uses, even those outside of the core area of protection.
Failure to do so, they warn, could lead to the most dreaded outcome: "genericide" and ultimate abandonment of the trademark itself.
Examples of once famous trademarks that have fallen victim to such a fate include aspirin, yo-yo, escalator, kerosene, zipper, cellophane and thermos.
But in none of these instances did the widespread unauthorized usage that led to the trademarks' destruction start outside of the core market, leading to the slippery slope of genericide that brand owners dread.
Rather, the trademark owners were simply so successful in their core market, everyone else adopted the term to describe the product category itself. Eventually, no one knew that any particular thermos originated from one source or manufacturer.
It is that fear that drives makers of Kleenex-brand tissues, Xerox-brand copiers and Band-Aid brand bandages, to frequently remind us that their products are brands, not the names of generic products.
Brand protection advocates must carefully balance their clients' important need to protect against trademark erosion, and the wider realities of the marketplace.