Quebec's A. Lassonde Inc. has been selling fruit and vegetable juices under the Oasis brand for over 45 years throughout Canada; its juices do exceptionally well in Lassonde's home province of Quebec.
As would any company that wishes to protect its brand, Lassonde has been vigilant in monitoring use by others of the word Oasis in their trademarks or corporate names. In 2005 Lassonde came across a small outfit, L'Oasis d'Olivia Inc., that imported high end beauty products under the Olivia's Oasis brand, which it applied to register in Canada. Lassonde opposed the application, then sued for trademark infringement, seeking an injunction and damages. Back in September 2010, Lassonde's lawsuit was dismissed based on absence of confusion between the two marks. More importantly, the trial judge invoked Quebec's recent anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) legislation to find that Lassonde's lawsuit was abusive and represented untoward use of "their economic power and experience … in a shotgun approach… to intimidate and thwart Defendant from its legitimate use of its trade name and trade-mark." The judge went on to award the Defendant $100,000 in costs and $25,000 in punitive damages.
Lassonde appealed, and on March 30, 2012 the Quebec Court of Appeal reversed this finding. It held that Lassonde's behaviour was in no way abusive and reflected perfectly acceptable corporate behaviour carried out in the legitimate interest of protecting its brand. It quashed the lower court's award of costs and punitive damages.
The story made the following Saturday's edition of La Presse, the largest French daily in the country. The defendant was there portrayed as an innocent victim who had won in court but had been saddled with enormous legal fees which threatened its very existence. The public's reaction was instantaneous. Lassonde's Facebook page was inundated with messages criticizing the company's actions. By Monday morning, more than 900 messages had been posted to the Oasis official Facebook page, most of them critical of Lassonde. A well-known talk show host even tweeted "That's it, I'm not drinking Oasis juice any more. My way to protest!" to his 105,000 followers.
Faced with this onslaught Lassonde quickly backed down. By Saturday evening the company announced on its Facebook page that it would seek to come to an arrangement with the defendant. Still the thumbs down messages kept coming. On Sunday afternoon top executives of the company were in the suburban living room of the principal of the defendant company negotiating a settlement. On Monday morning Lassonde issued a press release announcing that the parties had reached a deal, to the satisfaction of all concerned. It appears that the company ended up reimbursing the defendant's legal fees. But the damage to its brand and corporate image may be far greater and more difficult to repair.
Lassonde has learned the hard way that in today's world, the power of social media knows no bounds. Good branding strategies can no longer rest on classic formulae of trademark registration, oppositions and enforcement. Brand owners must gauge the impact of their actions and anticipate the public's sentiment: a large modern corporation protecting its legitimate interests can easily be unfavourably portrayed in the media, particularly if it chooses to take on the little guy. When this theme is taken up in the social media, it can quickly run out of control and be explosive, sending executives scrambling for cover.