The Court of Public Opinion


The pool continues to get tighter.  Monday of last week, Lagunitas submitted an affidavit to sue Sierra Nevada over a perceived trademark infringement.  Lagunitas’ complaint was that SN’s new Hop Hunter IPA sported a label that bore too close a resemblance to the logo for Lagunitas’ flagship IPA.  The next day, news of the suit went public, along with Lagunitas head honcho Tony Magee’s accompanying tweets regarding the matter.  The backlash from the beer scene (as illustrated in micro on our Facebook page) was tremendous.  People were pissed at Lagunitas, said really negative things & made appeals to boycott them.  Even those who weren’t overtly angry at the plaintiff seemed to be in consensus that the case didn’t have much merit.  Most saw the case as just laughable at best, if not an act of aggression that violated craft beer’s “bro-code”.  There are always the apologists who validate a business trying to “defend its brand”, but even their voices were meeker than usual.  The public had spoken: “Not cool.”

And you know what?  Lagunitas backed down.  They listened to everyone who thought they were being dicks & took a look in the mirror.  That Tuesday night, Tony serial-tweeted about the attempts to contact SN without success, about trying to resolve a conflict person-to-person & failing, about opting for the hard way, & about how that looks to people who care about the ethics of an industry.  “Today I was seriously schooled & heard you well…Tomorrow mornin we’ll Drop the Infringement Suit & get back to answering other Questions.”  An admission of guilt & a concession to heed the consumer’s opinion. 

Not for nothing, of course – a business of Lagunitas’ size can’t afford to arrogantly ignore the collective ‘boo’-ing of their market share.  There have been scores of inter-brewery conflicts, almost always concerning trademarks.  This was different, though, as it would have been the first formal engagement of two major players with one another (based on 2013 volume, Lagunitas is the fifth largest craft brewer in the country, SN the second).  And it’s significant in that the outcome was altered by the court of public opinion.  Feedback is wicked fast these days, if you haven’t noticed.  News gets around faster than ever, as does the reaction to news.  It didn’t take long for the community to get whipped into a fervor, & Tony didn’t like being the target of an angry mob.

Gotta admit, I was surprised that Lagunitas withdrew the suit.  Pleasantly surprised.  The more the craft beer segment grows, the more the “It’s business” mantra rises in pitch, competing for volume with the “Brotherhood” cheers.  This was the pendulum swinging in the other direction a little bit, a wake-up call that craft consumers care about fair & unfair in the industry that they love & are supporting with their dollars.  It was a sign that, in the marketplace, ethics do matter.  There’s no telling what would have transpired had Lagunitas followed through with the action.  Maybe they would’ve taken a hit to the bottom line, maybe not.  But it would’ve been a blemish on the face of the craft community, & it’s encouraging to see that people do hold brewers up to a code of conduct.  Drinkers didn’t want to see more bad blood, & the supply side listened.

Just as I sat down to write this today, a piece of news fell across my desk.  Saranac brewed a winter seasonal, Prism White Ale, & got it bottled, labeled, & delivered to their accounts.  It wasn’t until they actually saw cases of beer from Philadelphia’s Prism Brewing Co. in a Philly distributor that they realized they’d made a mistake, & didn’t want a dispute to erupt over the name.  Saranac contacted Prism, copping to their oversight, & the two worked it out, agreeing that Saranac will continue to call their white ale ‘Prism’ while allowing Prism Brewing access to their laboratory facilities.  However few exist altogether, this can be another check in the ‘Collaboration Not Litigation’ column.  In a field that’s growing increasingly competitive, there are bound to be some locked horns & dust-ups.  It’s good to know that both the brewers AND the drinkers care about more than the bottom line, though, & that part of the enjoyment of the beer comes from a faith in its producers.  We can work it out.
Farewell & Thanks
Wednesday, November 25, 2015

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