The New Zealand Herald recently reported on claims by two café owners that they are victims of "corporate bullying" by Coca-Cola.

Claire Rientjes and Egemen Yeter, owners of Innocent Foods, have received a cease and desist letter from the drinks company’s lawyers, alleging that the use in their branding of the word “Innocent” infringes a trade mark registration owned by one of Coca-Cola’s subsidiaries.

Whether Coca-Cola are being “bullies” is open to argument. A trade mark owner’s failure to enforce its rights, even against small-scale infringers, can potentially lead to a weakening of its marks and a loss of distinctiveness over time. So Coca-Cola may have decided that letting things slide wasn’t an option, and that protecting its brands was more important than avoiding some bad publicity.

The owners of Innocent Foods are like so many small business owners. They come up with a great idea and a great name, and then launch without checking if there is a problem with that name. Had they undertaken a search of the New Zealand trade marks register at an early stage, they may have been spared a lot of pain.

They have spent thousands of dollars creating branding, signage and a website and, unless they are prepared to fight (almost never a viable option for a small business against a corporate giant), will have to rebrand and find a new name for their business.

For many businesses the brand is their most important asset. And yet many businesses will spend thousands of dollars to prepare marketing and branding materials, including websites and social media presences, but never check whether they even have the right to use the brand. They will also often fail to spend even a small amount of money to secure trade mark protection for their key brand.

If you are starting a new venture, make sure you have protected your brand and that someone else doesn’t already have the rights to it. A simple check at the IPONZ website, as well as some basic Google searching, may be enough to indicate if there is an issue. A trade mark attorney can also undertake a more comprehensive search for you. If everything looks good, you can then file a trade mark application which (all going well) will be registered six months later. Once you have your registration, you should be well placed to stop others from taking your brand as their own.

Bowie Yorke offers a full trade marks service. We can assist with all aspects of trade marks protection, including strategy, searching, filing, and enforcement.