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Going round in circles

Mike Oliver, Head of Strategy at RY, asks whether the Lidl / Tesco case will prompt brands to stop playing it safe?

Lo Go (3)

Last week, Tesco lost their battle in the High Court with Lidl over the use of their Clubcard ‘logo’ – a yellow circle on a blue background – which was deemed to infringe on the German retailer’s own identity and thus take ‘unfair advantage’ of Lidl’s ‘reputation for great value’.


For those of us in the design industry, this is perhaps one of the most jaw-dropping verdicts in identity theft cases ever.


For a start, when you look at the two warring logos, the first thing that strikes you is that one simply isn’t. Putting a yellow circle on a blue background with a generic black font surely can’t claim to be remotely ownable, let alone a logo?


Secondly, round yellow stickers have been used since time immemorial by corner shops et al to promote products and prices. Do Lidl now own any yellow circle that appears on a product in a supermarket? And if so, how did they manage that?


Thirdly, when you get right down to it, we might be looking at the same standard, non-ownable yellow in both cases, but there are different blues, different fonts, different font colours and – oh yes – one of the contenders has got a very distinctive and very ownable logo in the middle of their circle which, as far as we can make out, Tesco is in no way trying to rip off.


But there you go, the brand that has stood for value and ‘every little helps’ for decades has taken one on the nose for being seen to be a little too economical with its stickering strategy.


So what does this mean for the rest of the brand world?


Well, for a start, logic would suggest that brand-owners should start investigating whether any standard shapes such as squares, triangles, stars, hexagons etc that feature in their logos are protectable. Does that sound nuts? Well, let’s see how many of you get approached over the next month by trademark lawyers pointing out that your plain red square is at risk.


More seriously, for those of us who work in corporate branding, we might want to mention Tesco and Lidl to those clients who worry about being distinctive. Sectors such as finance, law and professional services all have more than their fair share of businesses that would rather play it safe than stand out, even when their proposition gives them full permission to.


And in consumer, we’ve seen many global brands recently dial down the distinctive aspects of their identities in the name of ‘minimalism’ (think Google / Facebook / Revolut / Airbnb / Spotify etc). It looks like they are all coming from the same creative house, with the same design sensibilities and the same muted ambition and it feels, in the light of ‘yellow circle-gate’, not as safe a tactic as was probably intended.


The trick, for any brand in any sector, is to embrace a direction for your identity that perfectly balances distinction with being both credible and compelling to your market. And, of course, to build a robust audit into your research to check you’re not stepping on any toes before submitting your new direction to the lawyers.


Let’s hope that Tesco / Lidl prompts brands to start standing out again. And if that feels like going round in circles, well you know who to blame.