Cereal offenders

For those not in the know, both products are roughly rectangular biscuits of whole grain wheat sold as breakfast cereals, but with slight variations in taste and texture. Their origins each lie in 1920s Australia and, much as it hurts us to admit it, Weet-Bix is indeed the senior brand.  When the Aussie and Kiwi production companies were sold out from under the inventor (one Bennison Osborne) in the ’30s, he started up again in Kettering with an updated recipe and an extra vowel.

So there we have it: on the one hand, the stalwart British Weetabix (so British it’s currently being acquired by Post Holdings of Missouri from Bright Foods of China!) and, on the other, the Antipodean Weet-Bix (proudly brought to you by Sanitarium, the trading arm of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church).

For homesick Brits in New Zealand, the news that 300 boxes of genuine Weetabix had landed in Christchurch must have seemed like a godsend, as well as being easier to pronounce. Until, that is, customs officers impounded them at Sanitarium’s request, apparently for fear that customers might be confused. A flurry of “David v Goliath” press coverage has followed and Sanitarium have apparently offered a compromise: the Weetabix can be released if the offending “Weetabix” name is overstickered on the packaging and blanked out online.

But can there really be that much risk of confusion?  The names are admittedly similar (but with a crucial distinction – that hypen/glottal stop versus the more dactylic “a”), but the packaging and colour schemes are wholly different, and the respective markets - and their palates - are actually fairly dissimilar too.

Sanitarium’s concerns seem to do a disservice to everyone involved – it’s a bit like Manchester United suggesting their supporters could be taken in by Manchester City’s “confusingly similar” name.

Sanitarium’s response is that they are doing no more than enforcing their rights as they are entitled to. Social media, however, begs to disagree, with #freetheweetabix trending at the head of calls to boycott Sanitarium and drawing attention to its unusual tax status as a registered charity.

As we’ve mentioned before, businesses should think carefully before messing with popular consumer brands and remember that a solid legal argument can often flounder in the face of a heartfelt emotional response. Consumers don’t appreciate being patronised or used as pawns by overzealous brands lawyers: we may not always be right, but we prefer to decide for ourselves if we find something confusing, thank you very much.

Having seen Morrisons recently gain plaudits for its good humour in dealing with “Morrisinghs” (where Sainsbury’s had somewhat po-facedly objected to “Singhsburys”), BrandSoup reckons Sanitarium could have handled this better. We doubt all five million Kiwis are going to be hoodwinked into switching brand overnight – anyone who’s ever been served up a bowlful of the wrong breakfast biscuits will know that a glottal stop isn’t the only thing that can stick in your throat – and Sanitarium should take comfort from knowing that theirs is the preferred brand across the North, South and West Islands.

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