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Seeing Red: Christian Louboutin’s Trademark Battle

by Jaley Cranford

Whether they are strategically placed in a new movie or inspiring a rap song, Christian Louboutin’s signature red-bottomed shoes have found their way into the American mainstream. But these French imports wound up in a heated court case opposite designer Yves St. Laurent as the fall 2011 fashion season began.

Vogue documented the court proceedings, which began on April 10, 2011, with Louboutin filing against YSL for trademark infringement to the tune of $1 million in damages.

Four months later, Louboutin began fighting for Pantone-18 Chinese Red. Judge Victor Marrero of the Southern District of New York ruled in favor of YSL. Forbes listed many parts of Marrero’s 30-page decision, where most of his decision centered on the broadness of the trademark. Marrero said, “Louboutin’s claim would cast a red cloud over the whole industry, cramping what other designers could do, while allowing Louboutin to paint with a full palette.” Marrero also said that the red-bottomed wonders do not carry secondary meaning.

Unless you happen to have some background in trademark, you may be asking yourself what secondary meaning is. When you see a swoosh . . . what do you think? Nike. When you see golden arches . . . what do you think? McDonald’s. Those two visual identities are perfect examples of secondary meaning. Millions of people, including myself, see red-bottomed shoes and automatically identify Christian Louboutin. Maybe Mr. Marrero isn’t as fashion forward as those millions.

Some colors seem more worthy of trademarks than others. Though the trademark of Chinese Red allegedly steals opportunities from artists, Pantone 1837 apparently does not. Tiffany Blue (AKA Pantone 1837) is a trademarked color. What is the difference between the two? I have no idea. Maybe it’s an obvious sign that the federal court system is going to protect fewer and fewer copyrights. Regardless, Louboutin finds himself in an interesting situation.

So how does a company rally after a very public incident and still come out a victor in the court of public opinion? Welcome to the world of a little known sector of public relations: litigation PR.

Many companies find themselves with a crisis management issue when a court case begins. Taco Bell’s online defense of its seasoned beef claims is a recent example of how an organization can employ public relations when dealing with a court case. In an article on Mashable, writer Patrick Kerley says that by emulating some of the PR strategies Taco Bell used to move forward can help organizations like Louboutin. Some of the helpful hints include:

•    Using peacetime wisely
Plan out strategies for when things get heated before the issues arise.
•    Dominating search engines
Flood sites like Google, and Yahoo! with your side of the story.
•    Enlisting fans, followers and friends
Facebook, Twitter and social media can help turn the tide of public opinion for you. Friends listen to other friends.

Though these strategies helped Taco Bell during a trial, Kenley says that remembering that every situation is unique is crucial. “Perhaps the most important lesson to arise from Taco Bell’s digital response is that every company’s situation is unique and each of the tactics cited above must be carefully considered and cleared with counsel before moving forward,” Kenley said.

As Louboutin said in a New Yorker interview , “The shiny red color of the soles has no function other than to identify to the public that they are mine. I selected the color because it is engaging, flirtatious, memorable and the color of passion.” Maybe the “Mad Hatter” of French shoe design has something else up his sleeve.

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