Byravee Iyer
Oct 30, 2013

Starbucks in battle with street-side coffee stall in Bangkok

BANGKOK - Starbucks has challenged Damrong Maslae, a Bangkok-based coffee stall owner in a dispute over its green-and-white 'Starbung' logo but cease-and desist isn't enough; the brand wants arrests.

Starbucks has demanded the arrest of Maslae for trademark infringement
Starbucks has demanded the arrest of Maslae for trademark infringement

Starbucks filed its cease-and desist letter and trademark violation complaint last year. Then, two weeks ago, it filed a petition with the international trade and central intellectual property court and asked for action against Maslae and his brother. The coffee chain is suing Maslae and his brother for US$9,649 or 300,000 baht. What’s more, the company seeks a 7.5 per cent annual interest and monthly installments of $964 or 30,000 baht until the street vendors stop using the logo, while also calling for their arrest. 

Maslae declined to comply and said his religion, Islam, inspired the logo and he was determined to put up a fight, as the Guardian reported.

Starbung’s logo, which shows a man pouring coffee and holding up a victor sign, is strikingly similar to the US company’s logo. Still, the move appears heavy handed. Maslae charges under US$1 or 30 baht for a cup of coffee, much less than what Starbucks charges at its 171 stores in Thailand.

Cases such as these are frequent in Asia. In March, Louis Vuitton triggered angry responses when it demanded compensation from local businesses for infringing its trademark. The French company had accused a Hong Kong hair salon of trademark infringement for using its trademark check pattern on its chairs. Clothing retailer Gap also got into a scuffle with Green the Gap, a New Delhi-based NGO, over the usage of the word ‘Gap’ in its name.

There have been similarly overbearing responses from large corporations such as Fedex, Monster and Chick-fil-A.

If Starbucks wants to behave fairly and ethically, it should be transparent about it and clearly communicate its actions to the public, said Matthew Carr, MD of Oracle Added Value Hong Kong. Starbucks should also explain why the brand is so important to them, what it means to consumers and why they think it’s worth protecting, he added. “If Starbucks aren’t sure what to do but are feeling really bold then they could ask the public what they should do.”

The court of public opinion needs to be considered, Brendan Inns, principal of Brandvest Consulting told Campaign Asia-Pacific in an earlier interview that highlighted the issue of trademark infringement. “The court of public opinion has been described as the most important informal court and this is precisely why communications and marketing departments need to take the lead,” he said.

Large multinational companies such as Starbucks insist they have to be fiercely protective of their brands. Brand names and imagery are part of the intellectual property regime, and because brands are built with great passion and billions of dollars, brand owners do not want to lose or dilute goodwill and reputation in an already competitive market.

Carr recommends Starbucks might achieve much more by doing something noble like offering Maslae a job or launching a competition to design a new logo for his roadside stall. “Doing nothing leaves the door open to others.”




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