Insurance · 1 December 2017

Family-run coffee company takes on Coca-Cola in trademark dispute

Honest
Honest Coffees may be forced to change its name

Business Advice asked Wyatt and Grace Cavalier, the husband-and-wife team behind ethical coffee brand Honest Coffees, what kind of expert guidance they sought when a trademark dispute erupted with corporate giant Coca-Cola.

A family business in Devon could face a big re-branding bill after fizzy drinks giant Coca-Cola threatened it with legal action if the owners don’t change its name.

Wyatt and Grace Cavalier, the couple behind Plymouth-based coffee brand Honest Coffees, were given just seven days to get rid of their company name or face a costly legal battle that might just put them out if business.

In a trademark dispute, Coca-Cola claims there is too much similarity between the name of the West country firm and that of its own subsidiary, Honest Tea.

The global fizzy drinks giant began selling organic bottled teas under the “Honest” brand name in the UK last year, but had first trademarked the word “Honest” throughout Europe in 2014.

Read more: This UK tea brand was copied by Starbucks and Pret

Since Honest Coffees was only granted trademark status in 2015, Coca-Cola has claimed the family-run business has infringed its “Honest” trademark.

A letter from Coca-Cola’s lawyers to the Cavalier’s, dated 20 November, read: “The adoption of your company name is infringing the trademark rights of Honest Tea, Inc, given that the identical term HONEST, and anyone who encounters your company will doubtless associate it in some way with the HONEST trademarks and products of Honest Tea, Inc.

The letter the Cavaliers received from Coca-Cola’s lawyers
The letter the Cavaliers received from Coca-Cola’s lawyers

“We therefore ask that your company name is changed to a name which does not incorporate any words or phrases that are confusingly similar to HONEST.

“In order to avoid expensive and extensive opposition proceedings, we would like to give you the opportunity to withdraw both trademarks at the UKIPO and agree not to use the names in relation to any type of beverage.”

Father-of-two Wyatt, who was on paternity leave at the time the letter was sent, finally received word of Coca-Cola’s trademark dispute on 27 November, giving the founder just one day to take action before a legal battle ensued.

Shocked by the news and expressing anger at the prospect of losing his family’s livelihood, Wyatt said: “There’s no way that anyone would confuse Honest Coffees for Honest Teas, which is what they are worried about.

“We sell to businesses, they sell direct to consumers. They only launched about a year ago in the UK, so there’s no one who I think would confuse anything.  

Formed in 2012, Honest Coffees sells or leases between three and four thousand coffee machines a year to other local businesses. The family-run company also sells a million cups of coffee a year in the Plymouth area.

The business currently employs six people, but has been forced to put its expansion plans on hold whilst attempting to resolve this trademark dispute. There is now a growing likelihood that staff will have to be let go from its close-nit team.

“We’re trying to create jobs and support our farmers, and expensive – and potentially ruinous – lawsuits just don’t help anyone except the lawyers they keep in business,” Wyatt added.

“Everything we do as a company is aimed at looking after people and providing the best possible product and experience, and this unnecessary and aggressive lawsuit is going to significantly impact our ability to do that.”

Find out how to reach the best possible dispute settlement before taking the case to court

David vs Goliath

We asked Wyatt and Grace Cavalier more about the details of the Coca Cola trademark dispute and their strategy for avoiding a costly lawsuit with a global corporate giant.

(1) Why do you believe Coca Cola’s complaint is without merit?

Intellectual property experts have challenged the validity of trademarking a “laudatory adjective” like Honest as it’s wholly indistinct. Basically, it’s like trying to trademark “Great” or “Sweet”.

(2) Is this the first time you’ve had something like this happen to you?

image (1)[3] copy
Wyatt and Grace Cavalier
No, we had this with another similar-sized company, But they called us to talk about it, and we were able to come to an agreement.

(3) What kind of legal advice have you sought and how has this helped?

We’ve been very lucky that a few solicitors who sympathised with our situation have got in touch on a pro bono basis to offer advice. It’s given us a great feel for what our options are.

(4) Do you think bigger brands think they can get away with what they want?

Yes of course.

(5) What is your plan now?

To continue trying to engage with Coca-Cola to come to a sensible and reasonable agreement.

(6) What will the impact be if you have to change brand/name?

Several months lost time redoing work that’s already been done, shelving our plans to hire more staff, and between £10,000 and £30,000 spent rebranding current finished goods and other advertising materials.

(7) How could small firms be better protected from something like this happening?

Under current legal practice, if you’re taken to court on something like this, and you lose, you’re forced to pay the legal fees of the plaintiff. This makes it massively (more) expensive to defend yourself and seems very unfair.

(8) What is your advice to a fellow small business suffering from this kind of problem?

Pick a ridiculous company name that no one else would ever want!

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Fred Heritage is deputy editor at Business Advice. He has a BA in politics and international relations from the University of Kent and an MA in international conflict from Kings College London. He previously worked as a reporter at Global Trade Review magazine.

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