It's no news that big brands protect their design assets aggressively, but lawyers sometimes have a tendency to jump into the ring without thinking about how it will look. And the backlash when the story inevitably makes it into the press can be worse for the brand than any confusion caused to 'the average consumer'.
We've seen plenty of examples of multinational giants being derided for pursuing small businesses that had no intention to steal their identities. But when Adidas lodged a complaint against Black Lives Matter this week, it was perhaps the biggest misstep we've seen in the field of logo patent battles – as the brand itself seems to have realised (see our pick of the best logos for more iconic emblems).
On Monday, the German sportswear brand filed a complaint with the US Trademark Office asking it to block the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation's logo design because it "incorporates three stripes in a manner that is confusingly similar" to its own famous three-stripe branding, which it's been using since 1952.
By Wednesday, it had thought better about the whole thing. It made a sudden u-turn and withdrew the request. “Adidas will withdraw its opposition to the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation’s trademark application as soon as possible,” is all the company said. But I suspect it may have realised how big a backlash the move could provoke against a brand that's already going through a challenging period after its acrimonious bust-up with Kanye West's Yeezy.
The about-turn highlights the risks of lawyers jumping in fast when they think they've spotted a likeness to a brand asset. While it's understandable that a brand wants to protect its visual identity, it needs to also think about the impact any legal action will have on the "average consumer" as well as the impact of the offending design.
Adidas's recent (unsuccessful) attempt to challenge luxury designer Thom Browne's four stripes motif was more understandable. Browne is at least a clothes designer, even if four stripes are clearly not three. But the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation (BLMGN) is a popular social activist movement created after the killing of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012. It rose to global prominence amid the protests provoked by the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in 2020.
The BLMGN applied for a US trademark for its logo in November of that same year, and while its use cases do include clothing, Adidas's complaint could have been seen as pitting the company against the organisation's objectives. We'll remember this as one of the logo battles that should never have been fought, along with Rolex pursuing a children's clock company and the Apple Prepear saga.