Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Brand Maasai

The world these days is much more brand-conscious than it once was, say, back in the olden times of the 1960’s and 1970’s.

No, today Brands “R” Us, which, I suspect, is a brand violation in its own right. Or would be if I could figure out how to get that R to go backwards.

And once a brand is prominent, its owners go to great lengths to protect it.

Only officially-blessed MLB merchandise is good enough to be sold at the old ball game. And Harvard doesn’t let just anybody bandy its name around, let alone print it on a sweatshirt. (What do you think “Fight Fiercely Harvard” is all about, anyway?) A few years ago, Disney initially turned down a grieving family that had asked to use the image of their version of Winnie-the-Pooh on their child’s gravestone.  Eventually, Disney decided to let the brand violation go.  But while it’s hard to imagine that Disney said no to begin with – even if they were worried that this would cut into a potential fortune in Disney-themed coffins and headstones -it’s even harder to believe that the bereaved parents asked for permission to begin with. Thus the power of branding, I guess.

Personally, I think that organizations and individuals have a right to protect their brand. At least up to the point where doing so doesn’t become utterly redonkulous.

Anyway, given how important brands are to consumers and producers alike, it’s no surprise that groups would want to make sure that they get what they believe they’re entitled to, brand-wise.

Still, I was a bit taken aback to see an article in The Atlantic – yes, they do, indeed, have at least one subscriber out there, and that would be me – on the efforts by the Maasai tribe to trademark their name, and protect it from being used on:

…“Masai” sneakers (in British shoe stores), “Masai” tinted panoramic windows (on Land Rovers), and bright-blue “Masai” beach towels (at Louis Vuitton boutiques).

The Maasai are being helped in their efforts by a non-profit called Light Years IP, an:

…organization dedicated to alleviating poverty by assisting developing country producers gain ownership of their intellectual property and to use the IP to increase their export income and improve the security of that income.

Light Years helps:

…producers, exporters, and governments in the developing world to analyze their export potential with respect to identifying the value of intangibles and then using IP tools, such as patents, trademarks and licenses, to secure more sustained and higher export income. The ownership of IP is secured in market countries through the existing legal frameworks of the developed world.

Light Years IP believes that the Maasai brand may have an annual value of about $10M - no small change to a poor, semi-nomadic tribe whose way of life and culture is coming under increasing pressure from modernization and climate change. (Not that it wouldn’t be a bad idea if some of that way of life – e.g., female circumcision – died out.) Anyway, in all likelihood, corporate interests – such as sneaker manufacturers, car companies, and luxury-goods producers – may have beaten them to the registration punch.

The Maasai aren’t alone, as:

… more and more indigenous groups are staking claims to their traditional knowledge. Last year, the Navajo Nation sued Urban Outfitters over rights to its name; New Zealand has granted patents to the Maori; India recently offered a trademark to tribes making herbal medicines. Compared with these efforts, the Maasai’s branding battle will be more global in scope, but the tribe isn’t the first to go up against a seemingly unassailable target. The Sami, a group of indigenous Artic dwellers, have already taken on Santa Claus—or at any rate, a Finnish tourist attraction called Santa Claus Village. Among their gripes: that the Sami people’s customary blue-and-red outfit has been used to costume the park’s paid “elves.”

Well, good luck to all these indigenous groups, especially the Sami’s looking for compensation for those elf costumes.

But it does strike me that the sort of usage that they’re going after is a lot squishier than a corporation trying to protect its brand names, icons, and taglines.  And where would it end? Just what’s brand-able and what’s not?

If the Maasai can enjoin Louis Vuitton from describing a color as “Masai blue”, why can’t Germany go after Betty Crocker for German Chocolate Cake Mix? Or Ireland go after the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. Or the Boston Celtics.

Maybe the Germans don’t need the money, but the Irish these days could use a bit more scratch.

I’m sure it must be galling for indigenous cultures, now that they’re so exposed to the outside world, to find that some of what’s more or less unique to them is being used by others to make a buck. But are they being out and out exploited, or is this just a case of imitation-is-the-sincerest-form-of-flattery? Or just a case of flavor of the month: this month’s Masai bright blue gives way to next month’s Inuit white? And if it’s going to cost me to say Masai blue, I’ll make something else up.

Good that Light Years is trying to help out poor countries. And maybe they can get companies to cough up a few bucks to use the Maasai name. Why does Major League Baseball get to have brands, but the Maasai don’t? Is it just being part of a formal structure, with access to lawyers? I guess Light Years will give the Maasai some of that. But I’m still left asking myself what the difference is between a descriptor (German chocolate) and a brand (Disney on Ice). Guess we’ll have to leave it in the hands of the IP lawyers.

No comments: