In 1997, Matt Nadeau, a Vermont native, started his own microbrewery in the basement of his home. He named it Rock Art Brewery, in honor of the ancient petroglyphs that are etched in the rocks of the Vermont mountains surrounding his home. Eventually Matt moved his operation out of his basement and into a larger facility where he produces a full line-up of beers that are distributed throughout Vermont, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut and Arizona. In all regards, Matt had successfully realized his dream and turned a pastime into a profession.
To celebrate Rock Art's tenth anniversary, Matt decided to brew a special beer. Indicative of the ten-year mark, Matt crafted a big, bold beer with a 10% ABV (Alcohol By Volume) and aptly named it "Vermonster. "
Everything was going great for Matt until September 14, 2009. That morning, he received a cease and desist order in the mail from the Hansen Beverage Company, the makers of Monster energy drink, demanding that he:
1. Immediately cease and desist from any distribution, sale or other use of Vermonster in connection with beverages, including the use of any advertising, promotional and point-of-sale-materials that include the infringing mark;
2. Expressly abandon U.S. Trademark Application Serial No. 77/765,863; and
3. Pay to Hansen its attorney's fees incurred in connection with this matter. Hansen's argument is that , as Monster is planning to enter the alcoholic beverage market, Vermonster will "undoubtedly create a likelihood of confusion and/or dilute the distinctive quality of Hansen's Monster marks. Thus, use of Vermonster infringes Hansen's rights, and constitutes unfair competition under state and federal laws. "
Matt has sought out legal advice from a number of trademark attorneys, who each in turn have stated that should he proceed with litigation, he would most likely be vindicated in the eyes of the law. However, if he were to win in one court, he would be faced with an appeal from Hansen's lawyers in another. And another. And another. Fighting this, he has been advised, will most certainly bankrupt him.
So Matt decided to do what downtrodden, Little Guy's do when bullied by The Man: he resorted to grassroots tactics. However, this isn't your mother's letter-writing campaign.
Matt has smartly gone digital and positioned Rock Art Brewery's website as the hub for his battle against Hansen. The landing page features little other than content relating to his cause and prominently features a large title reading, "ROCK ART BREWERY VS CORPORATE AMERICA. " Just below the battle cry is an embedded, surprisingly well-produced, 6-minute YouTube video detailing his company and the lawsuit facing him. The site includes downloads of Hansen's original cease and desist letter, as well as links to the media coverage Matt has garnered. And, of course, there are the must-have "follow us on " Facebook/Twitter tabs. The #ISupportRockArt hashtag is a popular trending topic (though it has yet to break into the featured top ten). On Facebook, the 1,800-plus fans of the brewery are posting their support, encouraging a boycott of Monster and have even posted the mailing address of Monster's CEO, Rodney C. Saks.
What Rock Art Brewery is attempting to do could very well become a perfect case study of the power of social media as a grassroots tool. Beyond the #ISupportRockArt hashtag, Twitterati have already started posting #monsterboycott, #BoycottMonsterDrinks and #hansenboycott in their tweets. In my two minutes on Twitter observing #ISupportRockArt trending, 25 new tweets were posted featuring the hashtag. Furthermore, this story is only a month old and the exponential rate at which it has gained supporters is illustrative of the wildfire-like nature of the Internet.
Should this campaign gain enough of a following, Hansen will be forced to conduct a cost/benefit analysis of whether or not to pursue with their current course of action. I am willing to bet that had they checked with their PR counsel as well as their legal counsel in the beginning, they probably would've been advised not to have issued the cease and desist in the first place.
Regardless of how this plays out in court, any attempt by Hansen to position Monster in the alcoholic beverage market will inexorably be linked to the Rock Art Brewery name, even when it fades from the Twittersphere, as any future google search for "Monster Energy Drink " or "Hansen Beverage Company " will surely list links to this story amongst its returns. In the end, the move by Hansen to protect its brand from the "likelihood of confusion and/or dilute the distinctive quality of Hansen's Monster marks " will in effect have inadvertently perpetuated that very same scenario to occur.
**UPDATE 10/22/09** Hansen has withdrawn the C&D order. Here are the details.
The Killswitch Collective, LLC is in no way giving legal advice or is supporting or denying the legality of this case, nor are we advocating either side of the issue. We are simply using this scenario as a case study to show how online networks and the digital landscape can quickly and efficiently add momentum to a cause.