13th February 2013

2 Kinds of Lager (and a packet of crisps, please?)

Since the 19th century, three breweries have claimed the right to call their beer BUDWEISER. The oldest of these, Budweiser Bier Bürgerbräu (founded in 1795 by German-speaking inhabitants of České Budějovice, or “Budweis” as they prefer to call it), plays only a minor part in what follows. The main action has always been between Anheuser-Busch of the USA (who first started brewing their “Budweiser” in 1876) and Budweiser Budvar, founded in 1895 by the Czech-speaking citizens of Budweis (or “České Budějovice” as they prefer to call it).

Since the 19th century, three breweries have claimed the right to call their beer BUDWEISER. The oldest of these, Budweiser Bier Bürgerbräu (founded in 1795 by German-speaking inhabitants of České Budějovice, or “Budweis” as they prefer to call it), plays only a minor part in what follows. The main action has always been between Anheuser-Busch of the USA (who first started brewing their “Budweiser” in 1876) and Budweiser Budvar, founded in 1895 by the Czech-speaking citizens of Budweis (or “České Budějovice” as they prefer to call it).

Almost immediately, the various Budweisers tried to reach some kind of lasting settlement; in the 1930s, they agreed that Anheuser-Busch could use BUDWEISER only in North America, while the two European brewers kept the rights to the Old World markets. As a result, American Bud has to be called "Bud" in some European countries and "Anheuser-Busch B" in others. Budweiser Budvar’s beer, meanwhile, is “Czechvar” in the States but oddly both brews get to call themselves "Budweiser" in the UK and Eire. Confused yet?

The fall of the Iron Curtain opened up fresh markets to all three breweries and sparked off another round of conflicts in various new and exciting jurisdictions. By 2011, the score was standing at something like 88–36 to the Czechs. Furthermore, Budweiser Budvar had managed to win in several crucial territories such as the EU and China – not bad for a business which is outsold 270:1 by its US rival on a pint-by-pint basis. But there are reputed to be a further 110 disputes in hand or pending around the world and, by their own admission, this ongoing global litigation is seriously hampering both parties’ ability to develop and exploit new territories. So why are they still waging this modern Hundred Years’ War?

From one point of view, it could be seen as a principled battle between local traditions/old-fashioned ways and multinational homogeneity/progress and consumer choice. From another, it may be a struggle for truth and justice in the context of brand rights and consumer choice. But increasingly it just looks like an example of how easy it is to lose all sense of proportion once you get sucked into a fight.

Received wisdom suggests that there comes a point in any trade mark dispute (and usually fairly early on) where one or other party realises they’d be better off spending their time and money on a rebrand and a relaunch, rather than continuing to line their lawyers’ pockets. But it’s fair to say that some brands are more valuable than others, and German-style beers may be a good example of this: heavily circumscribed by law and tradition, there is little room for differentiation on grounds of ingredients, flavour or other physical qualities. How then are individual brewers to appeal to their customers?

Being able to trade on the heritage and reputation of a particular region, town or business may be all-important and worth fighting to defend, long after commonsense might suggest otherwise. Certainly Budweiser Budvar see their defence of their trade mark rights as a manifestation of their “right to exist”, casting themselves as a plucky David to Anheuser-Busch’s overmighty Goliath (Anheuser, for their part, profess themselves to be less concerned). Could it be that they have come to define themselves by their struggle and, in a kind of corporate co-dependency, can’t contemplate life without their nemesis?

There’s hope yet: trade mark law is littered with seemingly intractable disputes which have settled, suddenly and surprisingly, as soon as someone comes to their senses - Apple Computers v Apple Corps, WWF (the panda people) v WWF (Hulk Hogan and friends). And if British consumers can distinguish the “crisp, clean taste” of the one from the “full bodied taste” of the other, surely beer drinkers around the world can be trusted to do likewise. But while we’re waiting for peace to break out, make ours a pint of Budweiser, will you…?


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