Lessons You Can Learn from Apple’s iPad Woes

As iPads are being seized by authorities in China, you may be wondering how to protect your brand globally. Here’s what you need to know.

Chinese shoppers check out the iPad 2 at an Apple store in Beijing.

I was recently reading an article concerning Apple’s ongoing battle over the sale of its iPad tablet computers in China.  It seems that the technology juggernaut’s iPads are now being seized by authorities in at least two Chinese cities as a result of an escalating trademark dispute between Apple and Proview Technology.

More specifically, the tablets are being “temporarily impounded” in Zuzhou, a city of 1.8 million in the coastal Jiangsu province, as well as in Shijiazhuang, the capital of the Hebei province relatively near Beijing.  The seizures follow a ruling in December in which a Chinese court ruled that Apple did not own the iPad name in China and, accordingly, may be precluded from using the same by virtue of Proview Technology’s competing prior use of a similar trademark.

So far authorities have impounded only a handful of iPads under the ruling.  However, the ramifications of the order and the potential loss of business in the fourth-largest consumer market in the world have sent shock waves through the industry over concerns begging the question of what could be next?

For a company that spends, on average, up to half a billion dollars per year on marketing and brand developing advertisements, being potentially shut out of China represents a major concern.  Still, Apple is not the only company that experiences this type of dilemma.  As the globalization of our marketplaces continues and we gradually become a one-world showcase for products and services, being locked out of specific territories will become an increasing concern for businesses.

No one wants to call their product one thing in the United States only to have to completely re-label the same for export and sale to Europe.  Marketing synergies would be destroyed, not to mention the eradication of good will developed in the brand name on one continent only to have to start anew on another.

So what can you do to avoid Apple’s dilemma?  Here are a few tips for those of you intending to go global with your brands that will help you along the way:

1.       There is No One-Stop Global Trademark

First, understand that there is truly no global trademark that you can acquire that will protect your brand worldwide.  Many businesses and entrepreneurs alike have heard the rumors of a global trademark, one that once filed will protect your brand in every country on Earth.  Sadly, those rumors are simply that, figments of someone’s imagination.

That is not to say that your brand cannot be protected globally.  It can.  Various treaties entered into by countries around the world have made it far simpler than at any point in history to protect your brand globally.  However, although some filing systems may be linked, some countries formed in “communities” which permit simpler protection across multiple countries, protection of your brand assets remains largely a country-by-country endeavor with country-by-country costs.

2.       Map Out / Determine Your Markets

Second, now that you are aware there will be costs associated with trademark or brand clearance and protection in each country in which you would like to offer your goods or services, it’s time to snap on our CFO helmet.  Few companies outside of the Fortune 500 can simply green-light the protection of their brands on a global scale.  Such an effort will, at a minimum, set you back somewhere in the neighborhood of $300,000 U.S., assuming that there are no hiccups along the way.  Assuming that $300,000 U.S. is slightly above the typical brand protection budget of most companies, you should prepare a more selective wish list of countries in which you truly believe you may one day attempt to offer your goods or services.

Depending upon what your goods or services are, most will want to protect their brand in the largest consumer markets in the world.  Historically speaking, the top 10 are: United States, Japan, Germany, China, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Brazil, Spain, and Canada.  Of note, just on the outside is India and it is rising fast, almost as fast as China.  Your targets may vary.  Perhaps you know that your snow shoes are not going to be big sellers in Brazil.  Be that as it may, you get the point.

Once you have made up your wish list of countries in which you believe you will offer your goods or services at some point it’s time to see if your brand is available.

3.       Check for the Global Availability of Your Brand Name

Checking for the global availability of your brand is easier than ever.  Use a service that can assist you in this regard.  What you are looking for is whether your brand is available in the list of countries in which you may wish to sell your goods or services in the future.  If you find that it is generally available, you should protect it in these countries as soon as possible.  In the alternative, if you find that it is taken, prior to taking the time developing a brand that is only available in some countries, give some thought to rebranding a name that will be available globally, or at least in all or most of the countries that you will offer your goods of services.

4.       Protect It

Finally, when all is said and done and you have decided upon a brand name that is generally available in the markets that you will be using the trademark, it is critical that you protect it.  Register the trademark in those countries and lock up your right to expand your brand globally into your target market countries.

Matthew Swyers is the founder of The Trademark Company, a web-based law firm specializing in protecting the trademark rights of small to medium-sized businesses. The company is also ranked No. 138 on the 2011 Inc. 500 list. @TrademarkCo

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