When a major corporation singles out a small business for a lawsuit, the smaller company's options are to be as compliant as possible, or to get buried by legal fees in a war of attrition.
Matt Nadeau, who owns the Morrisville, Vermont-based Rock Art Brewery with his wife Renee, knows this all too well. In September, Hansen Beverage Company, which makes Monster energy drinks, sent him a cease and desist order for his Vermonster beer, which he has trademarked in the state of Vermont. The billion-dollar corporation told Nadeau it wanted him to stop using the name and compensate it for its legal fees.
Though the five trademark attorneys he consulted say the law is on his side, they also told Nadeau, "They're big, you're small. They will win, you will lose." To Nadeau, this had the ring of injustice, "That does not sound like the America that I grew up in," he says.
Nadeau first received an email from Diane Reed, an intellectual-property lawyer representing Hansen, who wrote that Rock Art's Vermonster beer will "undoubtedly create a likelihood of confusion and/or dilute the distinctive quality of Hansen's" Monster trademarks. At press time, Reed was unreachable for comment.
When Nadeau began talking to customers who came into his brewery, he saw people respond viscerally to the bind he was in. When he sent out e-mail blasts, the response was even stronger, and the story began to gain momentum on sites like Twitter and Facebook. One tweet read, "dear @monsterenergy lawyers, please stop bullying small businesses."
Offline, support was also swift. We decided to "stand with our friends at Rock Art and stand up for them. It's a totally bogus scenario," says Jeff Baker, the beer and wine manager at the Beverage Warehouse in Winooski, Vermont. Monster was the store's top selling energy drink, but they stopped carrying it and even called the company to cart away $2,000 worth of merchandise.
The store's customer response has been overwhelmingly positive. "People pick a different energy drink and they don't have a problem doing that," says Baker. Plus the store sold 120 bottles of Vermonster in a weekend compared to the 20 to 30 they usually sell in an entire week.
Beyond the free publicity and the sales boost, Rock Art's vocal social media supporters might actually secure it a victory. Initially Nadeau had trouble even getting a corporate lawyer on the phone, but when Hansen's investors caught wind of the snafu, Nadeau was patched through to the CEO and he is cautiously optimistic that the situation will be settled soon.
But social media hasn't been Rock Art's sole saving grace. Nadeau sees a small perfect storm in his favor fueled by Vermont's strong state pride, the fact that beer is a sexy product, the tight-knit craft brewing community, and the American public's anger at corporate America.
"With the recent meltdown of Wall Street, not caused by this type of corporate action but possibly by this type of corporate attitude, people aren't happy," he says.