Since 1872, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus has leveraged its slogan, “The Greatest Show on Earth” to international renown. But back in the early ‘60s, along came the state of Utah promoting its local ski industry with the slogan, “The Greatest Snow on Earth.” Learning of Utah’s application for a federal (nationwide) trademark in 1988, Ringling Bros. decided to challenge. In 1995, the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board approved Utah’s request to trademark the slogan, forcing Ringling Bros. to file suit in 1996. Ultimately, the U.S. District Court ruled in favor of Utah, stating Ringling Bros.—in addition to the fact that the two entities were in vastly different industries—had failed to prove that consumers were confused by the similarly-sounding slogans. End of story.
Now the state of Utah, apparently never a fan of original thought, is at it again. Steamboat Springs, Colorado, on the other side of the mountains, has been known for decades as “Ski Town USA” and here comes the Visit Salt Lake Convention Bureau in September with its new “Ski City USA” marketing slogan and positioning, “Once you’ve stayed in Ski City, you’ll never stay in a ski town.”
The Steamboat ski area and the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club, the entity that coined the “Ski Town” positioning, are upset. Utah, argues Steamboat marketing chief Rob Perlman, is attempting to parlay the enormous recognition of Steamboat’s slogan to launch its own campaign. “We think it’s confusingly similar to our ‘Ski Town USA’ trademark, and they are attempting to leverage our brand and our brand equity.” (see full article in The Denver Post).
What has driven Utah to attempt to steal the marketing thunder (and skiers) from its Colorado neighbor? Apparently, the Visit Salt Lake Convention Bureau’s nose has been bent by the fact that a preponderance of focus group respondents identified photos of a Salt Lake City skyline backed by the Wasatch Mountains as being “Denver.”
Retorted the Utah Office of Tourism Managing Director, Vicki Varela, at the campaign launch, “It’s outrageous that [Utah] has the product and they have the brand.” I don’t suppose the fact that Salt Lake City owns one of the blandest cityscapes this side of Seoul, Korea, has anything to do with it.
Steamboat’s newly filed lawsuit argues the Visit Salt Lake Convention Bureau, in cahoots with the four nearby Cottonwood Canyon resorts (Snowbird, Alta, Solitude and Brighton) are creating unfair competition and Steamboat has requested relief under consumer-protection laws. Steamboat, says the avadavat, has been “injured in the course of their business as a result of the deceptive trade practices in the form of actual and potential consumer confusion.”
Well, as I’ve said before in previous blogs, I’m certainly no copyright attorney, but I’ve been around branding long enough to sense infringement when I smell it. Fundamentally, the law states infringement may occur where, in the same industry and/or in similar lines of business, there is likely cause for consumer confusion among competitors. Here we have the same industry, a similar neighborhood in the same geographic region, and essentially the same slogan (“City” and “Town” not being distinctly dissimilar).
My guess is that this time around, and unlike its earlier victory over Ringling Bros., Utah will find itself on the short end of the legal stick. In the event, may I suggest the bureau consider another approach? How about “Visit Salt Lake, the smile high city.”
A settlement has been reached and the Visit Salt Lake Convention Bureau has agreed to drop the “USA” from the name, going by “Ski City” instead. “Steamboat appreciates Visit Salt Lake’s willingness to revise their campaign in order to address the concerns that resulted in a court filing,” explained Steamboat’s SVP of sales and marketing, Rob Perlman.
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