The Merck brand is still unraveling its own history—even after a century. Since World War I, Merck in the US and in Germany have uneasily shared the brand name of their original company despite being different pharmaceutical companies. But now, thanks to the globalization of the pharmaceutical industry and the reach of social media and digital communications, they can’t stand it any more.
Germany-based Merck KGaA, a pharmaceuticals and chemicals group, needs to be more assertive in its ownership of the brand everywhere outside North America in the view of CEO Karl-Ludwig Kley, as reported by the Financial Times. But US-based Merck & Co. told the FT that it is committed to “resolving issues through communication and cooperation without the need to resort to litigation.”
It took a long time for the Merck name-sharing arrangement to reach a boiling point. Both operations were part of the same company until the US government confiscated the American business from its German owners during World War I. Since then, Germany’s Merck has held worldwide rights to the name except in North America, where it is known as EMD. The US-based Merck, meanwhile, is known as MSD beyond North America.
The internet has made it more difficult for anyone but the companies to keep them straight. And the shared identity was really a problem last year for German Merck when demonstrators turned up outside the London offices of the company—to protest alleged unethical behavior by US Merck in Africa, according to the Financial Times.
The confusion has been the subject of disputes in the past, such as the quarrel in 2011 over a Facebook page name, according to the Wall Street Journal. Spokespeople for both companies downplayed the possibility of a new dispute breaking out, but talks are again under way and it may be a challenge to resolve the issue.
“The two companies are friendly,” Kley told the Journal. “We are trying to work it out, but it’s not easy. The situation was not satisfactory for anyone.”
US Merck is more than three times larger than German Merck, but the latter owns the brand name in the fastest-growing global markets, including China and Brazil.
Now that Germany’s Merck wants to be more assertive about its marque, Kley admits that his company bears some fault in allowing the situation to get to this point. “Over many decades we underinvested in our brand,” he told the Financial Times. “We need to make people more aware of the fact there are two Mercks.”