I want to be clear from the start. There are people who have been bashing the Boston Beer Co. for a long time for a variety of reasons. I’m not one of those people. I like Jim Koch and think he’s done more good than harm to promote better beer to an ever-widening audience of consumers. I think Samuel Adams Boston Lager is a fine-tasting, if somewhat unremarkable, beer. When choices are thin, I’ll happily drink one, which is something I won’t do with several other high-profile popular beer brands. And the specialty beers Jim has made include some really terrific beers that have truly stretched the imagination and the very definition of what beer is.
That being said, I think Jim Koch is getting some awfully bad advice. First there was the ill-conceived radio talk show stunt that Boston Beer was involved with which challenged a couple to have sex in a church. Many were not amused — though personally I could have cared less — and there was some public relations fallout from the incident. Now there’s a new flap that’s not doing Jim Koch any favors and I think the blame rests squarely with his advisors and their poor handling of it.
The story concerns Portland, Oregon’s new candidate for mayor: Sam Adams. No, not the long-dead patriot and signer of the Declaration of Independence. And not the historical brewer personage that the Boston Beer Co. appropriated for their own use in 1984. No, this Sam Adams has been around since 1963, or at least 21 years before the beer brand was trademarked. This Sam Adams is running for the mayor of beertown, Portland, Oregon. When current mayor, Tom Potter, who’s led the Oregon Brewers Festival Parade two years in a row, announced he would not be running again, popular City Commissioner Adams stepped up and announced his candidacy to be the city’s next mayor.
Two DJs from KEX News Radio 1190 in Portland, Dave Anderson and Mark Mason, registered the domain names www.samadamsformayor.com and www.mayorsamadams.com on behalf of the candidate and promised to give them to Adams provided he went on their show to discuss politics, which he subsequently did.
In the meantime, Boston Beer’s Intellectual Property Manager, Helen Bornemann, got wind of the web addresses and fired off a boilerplate cease and desist letter without, apparently, doing any research whatsoever or even picking up a phone to ask anyone about the domain names. I’m no lawyer, though I did work in a law office for eight years and I’m also married to one, but that strikes me as a pretty sloppy way to react. I know IP is something companies take very seriously and often vigorously protect, but a little fact-checking might have gone a long way toward keeping them from placing their foot so deeply in their mouth. The letter is up on the radio station’s website for all the world to see.
In the letter, she announced that they’ve been using the trademarks since 1984, to which the bemused mayoral candidate quipped. “I’ve been using it since 1963.” But Sam Adams the candidate is also concerned and his staff is talking with attorneys, too. Adams is already using the campaign slogan “Sam Adams for Portland Mayor” on his own website and it will likely appear on signs and bumper stickers. too.
According to an AP story, “Boston Beer’s Helen Bornemann said she didn’t know there was a real Sam Adams running for mayor when she sent the letter.” But she sent it anyway without bothering to find out. To me that’s a bully’s arrogance. It’s saying I must be right and you have to prove me wrong … or else. She further tries to excuse her behavior by claiming that “she feared someone was copying the advertisements” that Boston Beer Co. ran years ago, a marketing campaign called “Sam Adams for President.” Feared, but again didn’t try to find out any facts to support those fears.
So okay, she made a mistake. I could almost excuse her behavior up to this point as being over zealous in trying to protect her client’s or her company’s interests (it’s not clear if she’s a lawyer but if not she’s clearly consulted with one and cites specific law in her letter to the radio DJs). But then she pours gasoline on the fire with this statement, again from the AP story. “Bornemann said she’s willing to discuss Adams’ use of his name on his Web sites ‘probably for the length of the time the election is being held.’”
Oh, really. She’s “willing,” is she, to talk about whether Sam Adams should be allowed to use his own freaking name in his own campaign website as he runs for mayor of a prominent American city? How magnanimous. How insulting. Oh, and after the election she may not allow him to be able to continue using his own name? This is an excellent example of how to get yourself some very negative PR. I don’t think it’s even about a strict interpretation of law, it comes down to how the public — your potential customers — view your actions. And the city of Portland is not amused.
If you didn’t know, the state of Oregon has already had a somewhat tenuous relationship with the Boston Beer Co., ever since they had another contract brand that they marketed under the name Oregon Beer Co. in the mid-1990s To be fair, I really liked the Blackberry Porter they made, but Oregonians were not particularly thrilled with having their own beer prestige co-opted by a beer that — and somebody correct me if I’m not remembering this correctly — wasn’t even brewed in Oregon. Boston Beer had, of course, a legal right to use the name but it struck many people at the time as somewhat dishonest.
There’s already a backlash and calls to boycott Samuel Adams beer over this latest gaffe. In addition to the AP story that’s been picked up all over the place, such as in the Washington Post, there’s also been local coverage in the Oregonian and Willamette Week. Naturally, it’s Portland bloggers who are setting the tone and calling for boycotts, such as Rusty’s Blog, who’s following it day by day. Today, for example, his post is called Sam Adams Post, Day 3. Others include Beervana, Blue Oregon, The Champagne of Blogs, Jack Bog’s Blog, Metroblogging Portland, Witigonen and the ZehnKatzen Times. But my favorite take on all this is from Isaac Laquedem’s blog, who advances the novel theory that Boston Beer Co. may be in violation of local election laws (as set forth in ORS 260.695). The way the election laws are written it’s possible to interpret them so that if they continue to sell the Samuel Adams brand people could confuse the bottles as a political endorsement for the candidate. Hilarious.
I think when all the dust settles, this will be remembered and perhaps even taught in business schools as a stellar example of how and why not to react to a potential IP threat in a kneejerk fashion. Yes, Bornemann will cling to the excuse that she was just doing her job and perhaps she even has a leg to stand on, legal-wise (though I sort of doubt it), but had she exercised even a modicum of common sense and tried to learn something about the true nature of what she perceived as a threat to her company’s trademark, she could have avoided creating a PR nightmare that will doubtless continue to haunt her company for years to come, especially in Portland, Oregon and the Pacific Northwest. How much ill will has been created and how much business will Boston Beer ultimately lose over that simple failure to investigate and the bullying tactics of their IP Manager? Obviously, that’s hard to say, but I wouldn’t want to be in her shoes come performance review time.
UPDATE: Yesterday the Wall Street Journal Law Blog dubbed this issue the Trademark Dispute Of the Day: Sam Adams v. Sam Adams. Apparently they’ve received a call from a spokeswoman for Boston Beer claiming “they never had an issue with the mayoral candidate using his name but they do have an issue with the radio station using Sam Adams for its own business purposes.” Hmm. That’s new. Sounds like revisionist backpedaling to me. Let’s not forget that Boston Beer’s IP Manager, Helen “Bornemann said she’s willing to discuss Adams’ use of his name on his Web sites ‘probably for the length of the time the election is being held.’” That certainly goes beyond the scope of merely having an “issue with the radio station using Sam Adams for its own business purposes.” And while we’re at it, what exactly would be the “business purposes” that Boston Beer is so worried about? Given that the word “mayor” is in both domain names and there really is a person named “Sam Adams” who’s running for and quite possibly will be elected mayor (and I’ve got to believe all this publicity will give Adams a big assist in getting votes) it’s hard for me to understand their concerns. Wouldn’t a reasonable person conclude that the first domain name would be used by the mayoral candidate and the second by mayor Adams (assuming he’s elected) and not for any nefarious “business purposes.”