It’s an interesting coincidence that two high-end luggage and handbag makers, Louis Vuitton and Coach, would be caught up in similar stories in the same week, both involving their efforts to protect their brand identity from misuse. While the incidents themselves are quite different, the fundamentals of each case are the same: great causes, bad tactics (well, more like one bad tactic and one reasonable tactic that could ultimately lead to bad press).
Let’s start with Coach. Like most luxury handbag makers, the Coach brand is frequently counterfeited. Walk down a major road in any big city and you’ll likely see numerous carts with vendors selling everything from Rolex watches (also fake), sweatshirts and souvenir t-shirts, to stacks and stacks of “designer” handbags. I myself admit I own a gorgeous Louis Vuitton bowling bag that I bought for 30 bucks from a guy on the street in Washington, DC (what can I say, it’s the best fake I’ve ever seen).
This rampant counterfeiting is a problem for designers for a number of important reasons, but fundamentally it boils down to brand ownership. The Coach name and logo are the property of the company, and they have the right to protect their brand–I wouldn’t want anyone logging onto Twitter one day with my picture as their avatar and claiming to be me, and neither would you (insert @sethgodin joke here).
As such, to raise awareness on this issue Coach granted a public relations class at Hunter College $10,000 to run an online campaign starring a young student named “Heidi Cee,” who was scammed out of a $500 reward after someone returned her missing Coach bag–only to discover it was a phony. Also phony was Heidi herself, of course. I am against “flogging,” but I admit I am tickled that the class was even able to come up with this concept, as it cast some interesting light on a serious issue. For example, I only learned through reserarching this article that counterfeit bag-makers are connected to any number of criminal atrocities, including child labor, and it definitely made me feel a bit guilty about my fake Louis Vuitton; the only problem with the campaign was the dishonesty: the fake blog is ending up as the story, rather than the truly important issue for which they were attempting to raise awareness.
The class posted fliers about the missing bag and reward money to drive traffic to “Heidi’s” blog; perhaps as an alternative they could have admitted on the blog up front that there was no missing bag, and used the opportunity to include some information. Not quite as “fun” or sexy, but Coach would be taking less heat from PR bloggers for the stunt.
In other brand-protection news, Louis Vuitton found itself caught up in, of all things, the genocide taking place in Darfur. An artist used an image of a young Darfur boy on a t-shirt, shown clutching a small dog and Vuitton’s iconic monogrammed handbag. According to Jeremiah Owyang’s report, “The artist was trying to make a point that the media cares more for Paris Hilton extravaganza’s more than the genocide in the nation of Darfur.”
Fair enough, but the young artist did not have permission to use the image of Vuitton’s brand, and the company is suing her–not an enviable position, and as Owyang reports, a large groundswell of support for the artist and awareness of the Darfur issue has begun. While they “applauded” the effort in their original cease and desist letter, the company is now appearing at odds with it, and there is no easy way out. They are in the right, but it’s not a popular position.
At this point, I agree with the final option Owyang offers in his post–the company just needs to walk away. Drop the lawsuit, and withdraw from the issue. To join in the voices rallying for Darfur would seem tacky and disingenuous at this point, and really a luxury company that sells purses for thousands of dollars really does not have a place in serious discussions of world poverty, hunger and genocide.
Two very different cases of brand-jacking, and two very different poor decisions on how to handle it. What would have been your approach?