Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Reading list: on dilution

Sarah Lux, Evaluating Trade Mark Dilution From the Perspective of the Consumer, UNSW Law Journal Volume 34(3) (2011). A nice, short summary of the current state of play in dilution theory. A passage I liked:
... Reebok International has spent decades and millions trying to turn the mark REEBOK into a cultural symbol for individuality. In February 2005, Reebok launched a multi-million campaign built around the catch-phrase ‘I Am What I Am’, featuring enthusiastic testimonials of individuality from music icons Jay-Z, Daddy Yankee and 50 Cent, top athletes Allen Iverson, Donovan McNabb, Iker Casillas and Yao Ming, film stars Lucy Liu, John Leguizamo and Christina Ricci and skateboarder Stevie Williams. Despite this staggering investment, Reebok’s attempt to imbue its mark with cultural meaning has failed spectacularly. Rather than free-spirited self-expression, ‘[t]here are three major constructs that come to mind when looking at Reebok: change, confusion, and third tier.’ The Zippo Manufacturing Company, on the other hand, has had the opposite experience. The mark ZIPPO became a cultural icon during World War II when the lighter was chosen by American troops as the ultimate symbol of home. The Zippo was ‘the GI’s Friend’ and ‘the most coveted thing in the Army’ long before the company manufactured special edition lighters dedicated to the United States Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard in order to further develop these connotations of patriotism.
What was it that transformed the mark ZIPPO into a cultural artefact, if not just financial investment by its owner, and what was it that REEBOK lacked? Douglas Holt observes that brands are called on to ‘perform the particular myth society especially needs at a given historical moment, and they perform it charismatically’. Holt’s explanation is consistent with the above examples. Americans needed an emblem of patriotism during World War II and grasped onto the Zippo lighter to fulfil this need. Reebok, on the other hand, tried unilaterally to imbue its mark with meaning and failed. Holt’s analysis also goes a fair way towards explaining the expressive substitutability of brands, discussed in Part III(A)(2) above: when the mark BURBERRY became unavailable to consumers as a vehicle for expressions of prosperity, consumer communities simply looked for viable alternatives to meet their needs. The making of a mark into a valuable cultural artefact is not a one-sided investment decision made by a brand owner, but a cooperative process between a range of stakeholders.

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