But what do you do if you're in the shoes of SC Johnson and being unfairly associated with opioid deaths?
The issue is two "Johnson" companies: SC Johnson and Johnson & Johnson. The former makes products like Pledge, Saran Wrap, Ziploc storage bags, and Windex. It uses the tag line "a family company." The latter is the manufacturer of Johnson's Baby Shampoo, Band-Aid bandages--and pharmaceuticals, including opioids.
J&J has been caught up in the national opioid scandal, and a judge just ruled against the company in a suit brought by Oklahoma.
Everything clear so far? Now for the confusion. Oklahoma attorney general Mike Hunter has reportedly in interviews referred to J&J as styling itself as a family company.
SC Johnson has multiple trademarks on variations of "a family company," although it isn't the only firm using similar phrases. But it trademarked them for its specific areas of business, including "all-purpose cleaning preparations (not for use in the manufacturing process or medical purposes); hand soaps; soaps and detergents." In other words, in its product lines.
The confusion has made SC angry at a corporate level, run as it is by a fifth-generation Johnson. Family honor here, literally. CEO Fisk Johnson sent an angry letter to the attorney general's office demanding a retraction. Here's a bit of it:
I am writing to demand that you retract your statements that have appeared in both national and local media citing the SC Johnson tagline, "A Family Company." If you do not, we will have no choice but to bring suit.
This is a very difficult letter to write because the opioid crisis is such a terrible tragedy which has devastated many families. I can't possibly imagine what it's like for those families who have lost family members, and it is so important that this crisis be solved. While this issue on which I am writing pales in comparison, under the circumstance, I feel compelled to stand up for the 13,000 hardworking people of SC Johnson.
Johnson then goes through a list of mentions by Hunter and communications from the company to the attorney general's office, and ends with this:
You said yesterday that Johnson & Johnson's actions were "inconsistent with all of the grand statements that they [Johnson & Johnson] make about being a family company ... " However, we can find no occasions where Johnson & Johnson has ever referred to themselves as a family company. I can only conclude that these theatrics are in the service of personal political advantage.
Is this crazy of the company to pay this level of attention? Some seem to think so. New York Magazine spoke to a litigator the writer knew, asking whether such a suit had a chance. The lawyer basically said, "Mmm, no."
But I think SC Johnson did exactly as it had to for two reasons. One is legal. The New York Magazine article assumes this would be a case of libel. I suspect it would be about the misuse of a trademark. To keep a trademark, you must be willing to bring legal action when necessary if your mark is being confused with another company's.
Another is brand. If another company was referred to as calling itself a "family company," it's hard to see why SC Johnson would pay attention. But with the similarity in names--you can even see on Google where people search for the difference between the two firms--this damages the company brand, both among customers and investors.
This may be a quixotic fight, but it's not one that SC Johnson, or any other company, could afford to ignore.