Why Trademark (Brand) Matters: Food For Thought vs Huffington Post/Chipotle Mexican Grill

By: Timothy Fitzgerald Young 

 

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Click on the image to view a comparison of the long-established Food for Thought logo (c. 1996) to the logo Huffington Post/Chipotle is using (c. 2012).

Trademark law is little bit like tax law; few understand it and there is an industry of accountants, government employees and attorneys dedicated to interpreting, litigating, and resolving conflicts.  For small and large business owners alike, trademarks are one of the most valuable tools one can utilize to protect a company’s value, brand, reputation, and customer goodwill.

A week ago I discovered that Huffington Post and Chipotle restaurants had joined forces to launch a new blog about food policy and sustainability called Food For Thought. They also are utilizing a logo that has a shockingly close resemblance to mine. The fact that we have had a trademark for that name and mark since 1996 appears to have been overlooked, or ignored.  While our company produces specialty organic food products, we also tend an associated blog, newsletter, FaceBook Page, YouTube Page, and more that are dedicated to our mission: “Creating and raising awareness around just and sustainable food.” For many small business owners this is a looming dilemma, and in some cases a tragedy, that can pop up out of nowhere.

In the trademark world, the burden of enforcing trademark rights is on the shoulders of the trademark holder. This, of course, allows large corporations to encroach or outright steal the ideas, goodwill, and brand of small companies that don’t always have the deep pockets of the big guy. In my case it would be AOL/Time Warner–the parent company of the Huffington Post–and Chipotle Mexican Grill who have used my company’s name and likeness.  The shear magnitude and presence of these behemoth corporations in the world will suck up all the search engine optimization for my name Food For Thought and banish me and my company’s 18 years of hard work to the shadows of the world wide web. Size matters, especially when the big guys engage in unfair practices.

What many people may not realize is that a trademark, and its associated brand, can constitute the single most valuable asset of a company. Sound like a stretch? Well, over the years I’ve had many inquiries of interest in purchasing my trademark. Some were quite generous; some were simply fishing expeditions.  A traditional company valuation, however, including adding up all my assets (buildings, inventory, product recipes, web sites, profits, trained staff, etc.), wouldn’t come close to the offer I had a few years ago from a large global corporation. They said, “You can keep the company, we only want the trademark.” In the end I couldn’t sell my company to some global entity that was going to make organic cheese-puffs or some other green-washed product that would violate my values. But it did serve as a lesson, and wakeup call, about just how valuable brand and trademarks are to a company.

One of the greater areas of confusion about trademarks has to do with what can be registered and what it means to do so. Simply put, you can register any term or symbol in a variety of classifications so long as they don’t conflict with another use. Even if you don’t register your trademark you have legal standing, according to common law trademark, so long as you are first to market with a term. So, even though I registered Food For Thought with the U.S. Patent and Trademark office in a range of food classifications, the fact that I was writing a food related blog well before the Huffington Post means I have rights associated with my Food for Thought blog. This helps protect a brand in other related market activities and helps protect against consumer confusion.

It is a tough world out there in trademark land for the small business owner, and in the end most trademark issues are about business ethics. Legal standing aside, when large companies engage in this kind of activity, it calls into question the true ethics and culture of those companies. Therefore, despite their public proclamations of integrity and support for the little guy, their actions are a window into how these large companies really operate. Are they wolves in sheep’s clothing? The jury is deliberating.

For my family, we’ll keep on fighting for our rights because it’s all we got. Like most small business owners, my wife and I are not awash in income. There is no college fund for my kids, no retirement fund that will set us up for the last few decades of our lives. We’ve invested everything in our brand. Like many of my fellow small business owners we have taken on debt and second-mortgaged our home to build our company. We’ve paid graphic artists and branding agencies to create and design our logos, and attorneys to register them. We have paid photographers to capture our product for marketing and web pages, and the list goes on. Trademarks are the symbols of our companies, and in small businesses especially, they encapsulate the reputation of the owners and their staffs.

We are small business owners.  We are protective of our trademark–our brand–because when we look down the road it is the only economic security we, and our staffs, have.

 

 

 

 

 

5 Responses to “Why Trademark (Brand) Matters: Food For Thought vs Huffington Post/Chipotle Mexican Grill”

  1. Barbara Young Miller November 7, 2013 at 12:16 am #

    Well said and don’t give up. You have worked way too hard.
    Love,
    Your big sister…

  2. Yvette November 8, 2013 at 2:06 pm #

    As a small business owner, I truly sympathize and can relate to your dedication and choices to build your own company, and the sacrafices made for your family. In this case, laws and money make it all the more daunting! Stay the course. Your trademark will stand and I believe it will be all right. Thanks for sharing this TM journey, and we support you!
    Keep up the good fight!!

  3. Yvette Berman, Entrepreneur November 8, 2013 at 2:11 pm #

    Keep up the good fight!!

  4. Jerome Alexander November 17, 2013 at 1:43 pm #

    Well written article. It is certainly ‘food for thought’.

    Mr. Young, I will be getting in touch with you soon regarding a future business relationship.

  5. Sean Burns January 3, 2014 at 9:38 pm #

    Timothy,
    Good luck on the Chipotle Accountabilty Tour!
    Here’s a copy of an email I sent to Arianna Huffington and Mark Crompacker:

    Happy New Year Arianna, Mark and Betsy!

    Timothy Young has spent many years building his company and brand (Food For Thought) to be nationally recognized for high quality and ethics. Coincidentally, that is how Timothy is viewed in our community – a person of high quality and ethics.

    Arianna and Mark, have either of you run across Palestine to help create awareness and support for Palestinian farmers? How about running across Ethiopia to build schools and libraries? Thought not, but Timothy Young has.

    It’s a true shame that organizations like Huffingtonpost and Chipotle, who present themselves as progressive and “different” than the other corporate enterprises fall back to the easy way of problem solving by using their size and wealth to stomp on the little guys & gals who get in their way.

    Mark, as Timothy suggested you should re-read the boiler plate section on 2012 annual report about “intellectual” property rights. Actually, you really only have to look at the graphics on the cover of the report to get the message. I wonder how Jim and Charlie Fields (Ed Fields and Sons), Larry Peter (Spring Hill Jersey Cheese / Petaluma Creamery), Dean and Tyler Wiers (Wiers Farm / Dutch Maid), or Tom and Steve Church (Church Brothers / True Leaf Farms) would feel if they were in Timothy’s position. I also wonder what they would think knowing that one of their largest customers was stepping on a small organic food producer. Realistically, they probably wouldn’t care, but I bet their grandfathers would.

    Really hope you get a chance to meet Timothy, Stella and Connor on their tour.

    FYI – this is how a grass roots movement grows to a ground swell, to a possible tsunami. Food for thought….

    Best regards,

    Sean

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