One could argue that nothing is more important to a company or a product than its brand identity. From logo to tag line, from what colors to use, to what “voice” to portray in messaging, brand identity is the gateway to how consumers perceive your brand—the primary driver that separates successful companies from failures.
When a federal judge in Virginia ruled a few weeks ago that Gruyere cheese sold in America doesn’t have to come from the Gruyere region of Europe, it was not only a blow to the Swiss and French cheesemakers that filed the lawsuit; it was a lesson about protecting your brand identity at all costs. It’s a lesson the Gruyere producers should have learned from their counterparts in the Champagne province in the northeast of France.
While you personally may refer to a bottle of sparkling wine produced outside of France as “Champagne,” vineyards may not (although there’s an odd California loophole). As far back as 1843, a group of Champagne producers in France’s Champagne wine region banded together to successfully sue producers of sparkling wines outside the region for referring to their products as Champagne. But the effort to protect Champagne’s brand identity hardly stopped there. The Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC) was founded in 1941 with the specific goal of “preventing misuse of the name Champagne to describe sparkling wines, whether fakes being passed off as Champagne, or sparkling wines from other regions that use the name Champagne as a generic term (eg, American Champagne).” The CIVC has a Champagne Bureau in Washington, DC to protect the word “Champagne” from being misused in America. In 1990, new legislation extended Champagne brand protection beyond wines and spirits, resulting in successful lawsuits that prevented the selling of “Champagne cigarettes,” and a perfume called “Champagne” created by Yves Saint Laurent. Not sparkling wine from Champagne, France? No soup for you.
Which brings us back to our cheesy friends from Gruyere. They wanted similar trademark protection to what Champagne gets, arguing that Gruyere cheese can only come from the Gruyere region in Europe. The U.S. Dairy Export Council said Americans understand the gruyere name to be generic, applying only to the style regardless of origin. The honorable T.S. Ellis III agreed, and the words in his decision are important:
“It is clear from the record that the term GRUYERE may have in the past referred exclusively to cheese from Switzerland and France,” Ellis wrote. “However, decades of importation, production, and sale of cheese labeled GRUYERE produced outside the Gruyere region of Switzerland and France have eroded the meaning of that term and rendered it generic.”
How could this happen? Champagne is hardly the only example of brand protection. There’s even a cheese example from a similar part of the world. Roquefort can only come from the village of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in southern France. Why not Gruyere?
It all comes down to brand identity protection.
The originators of Champagne have spent nearly 200 years protecting their brand identity.
Regulations for Roquefort have been in place for nearly 100 years.
But because decades were allowed to pass without the producers of Gruyere protecting their brand identity, consumers (and an influential judge) perceived it to be a generic word.
In our world of audio entertainment, it’s a reminder to review your station, show, podcast, and streaming channel to ensure that your brand identity is protected at all times, and that no other entity is attempting to infringe upon it. While it requires an investment of time and money, the consequences of inaction may be a far worse fate.