Anheuser-Busch is equally forthright in its defense of its own brand strategy. Burrows argues the case for the global brand, citing the undoubted widespread recognition of the Budweiser and Bud brand names “…around the world” and suggests that the names “…are inextricably associated with our beers.”
“We have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the Budweiser and Bud names over the brands’ 127-year histories,” says Burrows, “making them among the most valuable brand names in the world. These trademarks provide the foundation for our beer business, and we aggressively protect them; not to defend them would be the equivalent of abandoning them.”
The dispute is often reported as a classic David and Goliath case. One in which the evil Western multinational is oppressing the plucky local producer. While this simplification makes for good copy, it doesn’t fully reflect the complexities of the situation. Anheuser’s Burrows argues that the case has little or no impact on the Budweiser brand strategy: “We use the Budweiser brand name in three of our top five markets in Europe. So the dispute is not having a significant impact on our international development objectives.”
This view is in stark contrast to that of Budvar, which admits that the long-running battle has had a beneficial effect, defining its brand strategy and enabling it to tap new markets that otherwise might have been much harder to penetrate. Harley explains, “It does give us an interesting angle on the brand. It keeps us fresh in people’s minds, it keeps us fresh in consumer and business press and it gives people interesting stories to talk about in the pub.”
Despite Budvar’s continuing state ownership, Harley is confident that this is a brand that can compete with the bigger players. Part of the reason for this confidence stems from the dispute itself: “We’d compare ourselves to people like Absolut vodka, who are state-owned but still manage to be cutting-edge. In that sense, the trademark dispute has definitely helped. It gives us an interesting political aspect to the brand, the anti-globalization movement is becoming more respectable, and that’s exactly the sort of sentiments that go along with us really.”
One senses from speaking to both companies that this dispute is far from over.
Budvar remains the subject of privatization and takeover rumors. If Budvar were to be privatized and sold, Anheuser-Busch would not be the only Western brewing corporation interested in buying it. SABMiller, a merger of South African Breweries and Miller Brewing of the US, already owns Pilsner Urquell, Gambrinus and Velke Popovice in the Czech Republic, while Interbrew of Belgium bought Staropramen of Prague in 2000.
From speaking to both companies, such a marriage seems a long way off. When Burrows contests that “We have no problem with Budvar selling their beer. They just can’t use names too close to ours”, Harley retorts “Budweis has been producing beer since 1260, which is before America even existed.”
For now however, an uneasy détente exists as the unresolved trade mark disputes in various jurisdictions rumble on. There even seems to be some disagreement over who has won what. While Budvar claims South Korea, Japan, New Zealand, Latvia, Australia, and Denmark, Anheuser-Busch cites legal victories in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Denmark, Finland, Nigeria, Hungary, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, Sweden and Tajikistan. As with consumers, there remains room for confusion. Fittingly, perhaps, since confusion in the mind of the consumer is the acid test when resolving trademark cases.
Neither company relishes the prospect of consumers mistaking their product as something produced by the other. Despite the positive effects of the dispute, Harley wants to “get the message out more that we’re not owned by [Anheuser-Busch] -- and I would imagine they would be quite unhappy if people picked up our beer instead of theirs by mistake.”
Harley gives a wry chuckle, however, when contemplating the vision of an American housewife taking home a crate of the Czech beer in mistaken belief that it is the American product, and thus accidentally converting her husband to Budvar. One suspects that Harley is happy for the dispute and the resulting confusion to run a little longer. As long as Anheuser remains frustrated in its attempts to take a stake in the Czech brewer, the dispute is probably helping Budvar more than hindering it. Perhaps any publicity is good publicity after all.