If you pop a cork of bubbly in the Champagne region, of France, it’s champagne. Do the same anywhere else and it’s “sparkling wine.” Why? Because the French are vigilant about the brand identity of one of their most popular exports. And yes, a region can be a brand. So can people. Like Oprah. If Oprah started putting her name on sparkling wine and it subsequently became used as a generic for all sparkling wine, her lawyers would come knocking.
“What are you drinking?”
“You mean sparkling wine?”
“Okay, I’m cheap.”
“When you say ‘Oprah’ when you mean sparkling wine, you’re violating a trademark.”
“I could be violating a birthmark. Think about it.”
“We’d rather not, Mr. Howell.”
“That was awkward, wasn’t it? Really, I meant benchmark. You guys still here? Guys?”
Companies want their products to be ubiquitous and spend millions on marketing and positioning to get there. However, at a certain level of ubiquity, your product’s name can become shorthand for all products in its category. This is why Kleenex takes ads out in Writer’s Digest Magazine pleading with authors to have their characters blow their noses with tissue paper when they mean tissue paper and Kleenex when they mean Kleenex. How many times have you Xeroxed your butt? Millions, I know. Xerox loves it when you use a Xerox machine to “Xerox” your butt, but not when you’re merely photocopying your butt. Having your brand name become a verb is only good when that verb occurs with your product. Like Googling. You can google only at Google – which is genius. And if you’ve been following the news, you would know that no one has ever committed an act of Yahooing, which, I believe, is still illegal in the South.
That said, there are times when brand owners overreach when defending the sanctity of their brands in the market. Like the country of Portugal. Apparently, if it’s not from Portugal, it’s not port – it’s dessert wine. At least according to the European Union. Now, port is not a region in Portugal. It’s an abbreviation. The EU doesn’t care, they want their member country to be happy and have made it a legal issue – if your dessert wine isn’t made in the country of Portugal, it cannot bear the four-letter abbreviation of port. Now, stateside, we have agencies that have to enforce these laws for reasons of international commerce. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau has to approve every label of every wine or spirit sold in our country. Consequently, local producers of port have been put in something of a situation. Some, like Peltier Station Winery in Lodi, however, have found a work-around. They simply called their winery’s 2004 zinfandel dessert wine a “USB Port” and feature the iconic digital device plug design on its label. This gimmick has landed the USB Port in magazines, blogs and Web sites worldwide. Moreover, it’s started an examination of how much dominion a region can have in terms of defending a brand identity.
Last year, an article in the Press Democrat described how our wee town of Sonoma had become a “brand” name. The article also explored why the Sonoma name has been plastered on products that have little to no relationship with the town or even the county. Sonoma is known for its wine – not a GMC truck, cigarettes or a gated community in Florida – all of which use the name Sonoma. I’m from Sonoma, but I’ve never smoked a Sonoma while driving a Sonoma on my way to a gated community in Florida. There really is one – you can Yahoo it. And I’m not even going to touch “Sonoma Valley,” the Crabtree & Evelyn Eau de Toilette Perfume. I hear it smells like the Xerox machine.