22 August, 2017

Toblenone - The Battle of the Peaks Begins Over the Toblerone Shape

Imitation is thought to be the greatest form of flattery, but in the world of IP, this is often the opposite of the case. Copying the looks of a product can be quite beneficial for the copying company, riding on the coattails of a potentially well-known look of a product, especially if they are undercutting the price of the original. This blog has discussed issues of generic packaging before, and the notorious KitKat saga, but none of the cases have looked at the matter of changing the shape of the original product, yet still seeking protection over the shape.

A recent case discussed in the Guardian has shed a new perspective, as discussed above, relating to the Toblerone chocolate bar. Poundland, a UK discount retailer selling products predominantly at £1, launched their Toblerone competitor Twin Peaks earlier this summer, aiming to compete against the reduced size Toblerone bar. This change featured bigger gaps in the Toblerone bar between the iconic triangular peaks, due to rising ingredient prices.

The matter has since gone to court, with Mondelez (the company that owns the Toblerone brand) arguing (possibly among other grounds) trademark infringement. Poundland have counterclaimed (possibly among other grounds) for invalidity and argued that "…the triangular prism shape of the Toblerone bar, which was registered under an EU trademark in 1997, is no longer distinctive partly because of the existence of the new version". Adding to this, they argued that "…any good reputation enjoyed by the Toblerone bar trademark has been “irretrievably abandoned” by the launch of the product with bigger gaps between its nine chunks, which the public “consider unfavourably in comparison”".

Mondelez put a wholly different spin
on the change to the Toblerone bar
The crux of the question is therefore whether the trademark registered by Toblerone (EUTM 31237) would no longer be distinctive due to the change in the Toblerone chocolate bar, and even if it's distinctive, whether the Twin Peaks bar creates a different impression so as to not infringe on the trademark or other possible rights under common law.

Arguably, Poundland potentially do have a point. The Toblerone bar has reduced its size by about 10%, and changed its shape from the registered 12 peaks to 11, with the gaps between the peaks has doubled by this writer's estimate. The base of the bar has also arguably become thinner. The Twin Peaks bar does not feature the wider gaps of the new Toblerone bar, including having a curved gap rather than a flat one, and splits the peaks into two. The Twin Peaks bar is also sold in a loosely fitting wrapper packaging, rather than a hard triangular cardboard package.

Case law has looked at changes to earlier registrations, and it does not necessarily bode well for Toblerone. In The Coca-Cola Company v OHIM the cola manufacturer changed the look of their iconic bottle, removing its distinctive fluting, and due to this change the EU General Court rejected their application for a lack of acquired distinctiveness, as "…[the bottle] was a mere variant of the shape and packaging of the goods concerned, which would not enable the average consumer to distinguish the goods from those of other undertakings". It is possible for the registration to be attacked (although the name and the triangular packaging will still arguably remain protected), so Toblerone would benefit from a new registration for the reduced size bar, unless it is simply treated as a stop-gap while prices are still high for some ingredients.

The Toblerone question is a very curious one, and this writer for one would love to see the case actually go to court (but heavily doubts this will happen). The point of changing the shape of a product with an existing trademark registration hasn't been dealt with by the judiciary much at all, so more light on this issue would be very helpful for both would-be registrants and competitors alike.

Source: The Guardian

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