What you need to know about the latest wiener war

Intellectual property is a matter of opinion in Parks vs Park's, writes Siegel+Gale naming strategist

Different isn’t just a competitive edge anymore; it’s a legal necessity. With a product landscape full of sound-a-likes and look-a-likes, consumers seek clarity. But what happens when two like products wind up with similar names?

They wind up in court. Earlier this month, international processed meat giant Tyson Foods Inc. beat a lawsuit from the Pittsburgh-based Parks brand of sausages. Parks claimed the new "Park’s Finest" hot dogs by Tyson’s Hillshire Brands division infringed upon its brand name. Tyson and Hillshire asserted that "Park’s Finest" is a premium frankfurter, its name a reference to their existing Ball Park brand.

So how did a US district judge in Allentown, Pennsylvania, deem "Park’s Finest" "unlikely to confuse a large number of consumers into thinking the plaintiff Parks LLC made them?" It all begins with the trademark: a piece of intellectual property protected by law to help consumers identify a particular product or service. If one name or logo out in the marketplace creates confusion for consumers at a basic identification level, there could be an issue.

In the case of Parks LLC v. Tyson Foods Inc. et al, Tyson came out top dog in part because it offered the court a survey showing just one in 200 people experienced confusion between its Park’s Finest and Parks brand sausages. Parks, on the other hand, had little evidence to show that shoppers might mix up the sausage brand and the Hillshire hot dogs.

Three meaty lessons arise from this face-off:

Stay on top of your naming trademark pre-screenings. Engage lawyers early and often in the brand- and product-naming process. Intellectual property is always a matter of legal opinion — not objective truth. Only a legal professional can help determine with relative certainty if your name is unique enough in its trademark class to survive uncontested. And even then, a mark may be up for debate well into the future. 

Know the competition. Every new product name should begin with a competitive audit. Had Tyson and Hillshire considered its smaller peers like Parks sausages, it might have steered clear of using the word "Park" from its "Ball Park" franks in the plural. And on the flip side, had Parks sausage considered the legal might of multinational corporation Tyson, it might not have bothered with the lawsuit. Tyson’s leveraging of market research to affirm unlikelihood of confusion helped make and win its case. 

Dupes live best in separate classes. In a world where Dove can stand for both soap and chocolate, or Flywheel can be both a spinning studio and a taxi app, two like or similar brand names can peacefully coexist. But they must live in different trademark classes. Both "Park’s Finest" and "Parks" sausages live in the US goods and services trademark Class 46. And despite the judge’s ruling to throw out this lawsuit, the two brands will continue to live a risky coexistence there together. Better to differentiate than to undergo the hassle.

Alison Greenberg is a naming strategist with Siegel + Gale.

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