Nonprofit Branding: Continuation….Buna Vs. Penn State. (Were university logo police overzealous clowns?)

The Questions: Were the Penn State logo police a bunch of overzealous clowns? OR were they right to suppress the logo of an obscure little high school 1,400 miles away? And to cause Mary Lou to ruin the tattoo on her backside?

NOTE: This is the second installment about an interesting brand-protection incident that took place a couple years ago. It recently became even more interesting when the protagonist – Mighty Penn State – encountered a real branding crisis in November, 2011.

BUT – this is no place for instant gratification. If you didn’t read the prior post, STOP HERE! Go back and read the first installment: It’s Your Brand – But You Don’t Control It.  Then today’s post will make sense – and define a professional risk and responsibility you can’t escape.

Here’s my answer to the questions in red: brand protection is so critical that, even though the actions of its administration seem like unforgivable bullying, the university did the right thing by stomping on Buna High School’s logo. Legal implications abound. They apply to every organization. So let’s have some fun and evaluate possible risks and outcomes.

We’ll start with a personal confession: back in 1970 or so I was running the Upstate New York Chapter of a highly visible international medical education organization. A local charity copied our name. I ignored the infringement. Members of our board of directors, wiser and more experienced than I, stepped in and taught me the lessons I am discussing here. Had they not directed me to act, and had I continued to ignore the infringement, a moderate private embarrassment would have become a public circus in the press.

Lesson learned! Now I am passing it on by introducing two imaginary commercial ventures so we can discuss Penn State’s zealous protection of its Nittany Lion logo.

Pretend a travel agency forms a group tour division to service the Penn State community. The name of the new enterprise is Lions Alumni Travel. The agency adopts a logo very similar to Penn State’s. It begins mailing logo-emblazoned offers of group tours to Penn State Alumni. Meanwhile, located at the edge of campus is a pizza shop called The Ptomaine Palace. The restaurant changes its name to Cougars’ Pizza Den. As part of its own branding effort it slaps a logo on napkins, pizza boxes, street signage and walls. The logo for Cougars Pizza Den looks very much like You Know What – as does the logo of Lions Alumni Travel.

Now, speculate a bit. The restaurant has a new name but still makes crappy pizza. Assume a bunch of Penn State alumni stop at the Cougars’ Pizza Den to scarf down pizza and beer, then hustle out to the College Station airport to embark on their Australian adventure under auspices of Lions Alumni Travel? More possible risk!

The next day, feeling the effects of too much beer, bad Cougars’ Den pizza and jet lag, the alumni are stunned to learn their tour guide has gone native with the driver of the tour bus. Now our hungover travelers are stuck on a driver-less bus in the Australian Outback with no guide – but each one does have a travel bag with a faux Penn State logo!

The illicit graphics flaunted by the restaurant and the tour company were designed to trade on the university’s credibility through implied association. Wouldn’t these unhappy travelers believe the pizza restaurant and the group tour company were both related to, affiliated with or had the endorsement of, Penn State University?

Whether you reflect on a hypothetical, goofy example like this one or you evaluate a real world incident, the basic point will remain unchanged: protecting the brand means, among other things, making sure NO organization uses intellectual property like your logo in a way that implies association with, that competes with or that otherwise reflects your organization’s identity.

You don’t need lousy pizza and runaway tour guides to force you to act. You have a professional responsibility to prevent any other organization from using a logo, tagline, slogan or positioning statement that could be confused with yours. Act immediately and firmly or you may enter a nightmare world of legal and public opinion challenge.

The first step is a letter from your lawyer requesting the violator to cease and desist. That letter should cite the origins of your legal ownership of the branding element in dispute. If you acted promptly, and if your legal rights predate the public display of the offending branding element, that should be the end of the issue.

Don’t decide the offender is a little outfit that does not threaten your brand. Here is the nightmare you want to avoid – the kind of mess that will be tough to clean up in the court of law – and especially in the court of public opinion. The offending organization can respond:

“Why are you picking on us? You didn’t stop other organizations from using logos similar to yours! The tacit permission you gave them is our implied right to the same treatment. Since you allowed their actions you have no right to harass us.”

You really don’t want to defend against that argument. As a nonprofit you are dependent on public favor. So you must protect all aspects of your brand in every incident of potential infringement…..or eventually face a damaging public squabble. That means you must act immediately and firmly if you spot infringement of your branding elements.

Sure, your brand is an elusive commodity. Controlling it is impossible; protecting it is essential. When infringement does become a threat, stopping it is a fundamental professional responsibility.

Fortunately, there is a pretty small risk of damage to your brand by an outside organization’s abuse of your logo. The much greater risk is that you or your colleagues may be the ones whose actions inadvertently weaken your logo and undermine the brand. THAT is the first risk to be concerned about. And that is a good reason to keep reading our blog posts.


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