Trevor Smith knows corporations. Before he started selling cold brew coffee, he developed their websites. Nike, Adidas, American Airlines, Discovery. They pitched ideas for their sites and he told them if they’d work.
So within that context, let’s go back to a few weeks ago, when Smith got home from a long, hard day’s work and found a Federal Express package waiting for him.
“It was a cease and desist from Starbucks,” Smith said.
No surprise, right? You know how these corporations get.
“Uh, excuse me, Freudian slip. From Stumptown.”
And that explains the pain. That’s what makes Smith, the co-founder of Secret Squirrel Cold Brew Coffee, feel disappointment and betrayal. He’d expect a cease and desist letter from Starbucks, or, say, Coca-Cola. But Stumptown trademarking their amber stubby bottle and then protecting their turf with this? As a former barista and kitchen cold brewer, Smith has always looked up to the Portland coffee roaster.
“It’s a little hurtful, really,” he said. “It’s like, ‘No! Not Stumptown! No!’”
In February 2011, Stumptown Coffee Roasters, one of the main players in the developing cold brew category, and a much-admired brand for its independence and devotion to quality, applied for design and packaging trademarks for its whole bean coffee and stubby bottle. And most relevant to Secret Squirrel, as well as up to a half-dozen other cold brew companies that received the same cease and desist letter, Stumptown’s defending the recently-secured trademarks.
The trademark filing for Stumptown’s “stubby” bottle made of amber-colored glass reads:
The mark consists of three-dimensional packaging for coffee and coffee-based beverages in the form of a semi-transparent brown bottle.
Smith does acknowledge similarities between the two bottles, but his list ain’t long. They’re both called “stubbies” and they both have an amber color. The comparison stops there. Smith never wanted to run a me-too brand, he said, and he aimed to reflect that with the packaging. Stumptown’s bottle is 10.5 oz., while Secret Squirrel’s bottle is 12 oz. Smith said that his bottle is taller and slimmer, compared to the shorter and chubbier look of the Stumptown bottle.
“I don’t think they have a valid argument,” he said.
He asks himself two questions when considering the letter.
1) Why is a company able to trademark an off-the-shelf bottle?
2) Is his company really infringing the trademark?
Diane Aylsworth, Stumptown’s director of cold brew, said that Secret Squirrel has cooperated. The other few companies are either doing the same or are still discussing the matter. She said that as the cold brew category develops, Stumptown wants to avoid becoming a generic brand, and with trademarks, accepted practice is that they need to be defended vigorously, lest it be diluted.
“It’s all about protecting our brand equity,” Aylsworth said. “It’s not about attacking the little guy.”
Meanwhile, Smith doesn’t have the funds or time to challenge the letter. Instead, he has three months to get through current inventory. He’s back to using Heritage beer bottles, the brand’s original packaging. And even though Secret Squirrel is growing fast, picking up widespread Whole Foods distribution in April, among others, he stills feels the same about it all.
Put simply, he said, “It wasn’t so cool.”