If you’ve been isolated from cycling news for the past 48 hours, a story has broken regarding Specialized flexing its litigious muscles and threatening a bike shop up in Canada, run by a veteran of the Afghanistan War, over the name of the shop. What’s the name of the shop? Cafe Roubaix. That, apparently, is viewed by Specialized as infringing upon their use of the name Roubaix for the line of bikes. There’s been a lot of bike-specific media coverage on it, such as this Velonews article. There’s also been some good blogging about the subject, explaining why Specialized’s claims are ill-founded. In addition, there’s been a lot of angry Facebooking and Tweeting, talking about how Specialized is offending customers, and turning people against their brand by, ironically enough, vigorously defending their perceived branding. There was also this amusing tweet:
That guy. What a kidder!
There have also been some amusing graphics generated on the inter-webs.
Here’s where the letter to Mr. Sinyard starts.
First off, you’re losing this public relations battle. If you cannot acknowledge that the current path you’re pursuing with Cafe Roubaix is a mistake, then you can stop reading now. It is a mistake. I’m not talking about the legal analysis of your claims–I’m talking about the direction of your brand, and what you’re doing to your company. I have a great deal of respect for what you’ve done with Specialized. You are the proverbial American Dream. You started a company with just your sweat and effort, and have created a hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars-per-year enterprise. That’s amazing by any measure. And you are doubtless proud, and protective, of that enterprise. I understand that fully. But somewhere along the lines, part of your company came off the tracks.
The past couple of years have been a progression of some bad legal decisions. Going after the Stumptown mountain bike because it sounds like Stumpjumper? Going after Epic Designs (manufacturer of some amazing bike luggage, now known as Relevate Designs) because you make a like of bikes called the Epic? Going after Epic Wheel Works in Portland, for the same reason? And your whole tangle with Volagi–embarrassing, frankly. Here’s a hint: when a Court says that you win, but only awards you $1 in damages…that’s the legal system telling you that you’re being a jerk. I don’t mean that as an insult–I don’t know you personally, and have no basis from which to judge you or your personality. But your legal department is running amok.
I don’t know if you have in-house counsel or outside counsel…or some combination thereof, but you need to get control of them, before they destroy your company. The vast majority of bikes purchased in this country are not purchased because they are necessary for transportation. They’re purchased as lifestyle choices–because they’re cool. That goes doubly for your most profitable bikes–the high-end mountain and road bikes that no one really needs to own. People buy those because they’re cool, and fast, and fun. But try as you may to convince the public otherwise, there’s nothing that special about a Specialized, just as there’s nothing that special about a Trek, et. al. What I mean by that is simple: from a “doing the group ride” perspective, any current high-end road bike will perform admirably. If you took away my current road bike and put me on a Venge, I wouldn’t be measurably faster or slower. Much of what goes into the purchase of a high-end bike is buying into the ethos and culture of the manufacturer. I love Salsa bikes in part because I love their ethos. The same can be said for Moots. But frankly, I am not seeing anyone lately who’s in love with Specialized as a brand. In fact, what I am seeing is Specialized dealers tweeting that they’re just as worried about your latest decisions as the public is. I’m seeing Specialized riders say that they’re changing brands. I’m seeing mechanics talk about rejecting bikes that even have your tires on them. It’s pretty bleak, Mike.
Let’s talk about Cafe Roubaix. First, the guy that runs it is a war veteran, who can legitimately talk about using his shop to help combat his combat-induced post-traumatic stress disorder. Does his being a veteran play into the technical legal analysis of your claim at all? Nope. Veteran or not, the law is the same. Moreover, if there really was a true violation of your intellectual property rights, being a veteran would not be a defense. But in a questionable situation, you have to know that the public is going to side with the war veteran who is the owner of a small business over a corporate giant (particularly when that corporate giant is having some very public fights over relatively petty trademark issues). Pick your battles, and avoid losses (or pyrrhic victories).
(I mean no offense to the shop owner, and I appreciate his service. I just think that his unique characteristics make it all the more obvious that Specialized has gone over the edge).
One way to look at this situation would be with some compassion. Look at the owner of this small business, and realize that he doesn’t pose a threat to your brand. There’s no likelihood of confusion–no one is going to mistake this guy for Specialized. Let sleeping dogs lie, and let this guy run his company. That’s a reasonable approach.
If you choose to analyze things from a purely business perspective, look at what’s happening. Even if there was some impact on your business (there isn’t), and even if you could quantify it (you can’t), it would be miniscule. Compare that minuscule economic impact to the incredibly damaging effect that this news is having upon your company. The core of people who are really dedicated bikers are seeing this news nonstop. All of their friends are using social media to talk about it. It’s everywhere–in the worst possible way. The cost analysis on this particular intellectual property squabble weighs heavily against pursuing it.
You’ve had a bunch of these squabbles. You should notice a trend: the backlash is growing each time. Every time you “pick on the little guy”, the public responds more. Let me tell you what’s in your future: mass media coverage. I wouldn’t be surprised if the “war veteran being sued by Specialized” story doesn’t pick up mass media this time around. And let’s be honest: if he gets on the Today show and talks about his business being attacked, you’re sunk. That has a tangible, hugely negative impact on you. Regardless of right or wrong, compassion or not…pursuing this claim is going to hurt your business. I like to think that the compassionate arguments would win out, but if they don’t, then look at the business side of this. You can’t buy negative press this vociferous. And if this claim doesn’t make mass media, the next one will. Honestly, we don’t need negative cycling stories to hit mass media. We’re still recovering from the onslaught of pro-cyclist revelations.
So let’s say you agree with me. Let’s say you’re willing to look at other options. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that you need to be aggressive in setting a new image and new tone for your company. That has a number of steps.
First, talk to your lawyers. My guess is that their current marching instructions are along these lines: “Be aggressive. If you find some intellectual property out there that might even possibly be infringing, and you can write a nasty letter with a straight face, do so. Pursue it vigorously. Use our size and ability to be intimidating.” For lawyers, there is a temptation to fight to win the legal battles, even when it means losing the larger war. You need to see your legal strategy as an integral part of your public image. You need to set a new paradigm–a new operating system for your litigators. There will be times when you have legitimate claims to pursue, and when you do, by all means go after them. But please exercise some common sense and discretion in determining what is and is not a threat. (More on that below).
And if you do have to go after someone, try to do so eloquently. Take Jack Daniels’ example.
That is a brilliant letter. Brilliant. It’s a win-win. If you succeed in changing the mind of the person it’s directed to, you’ve won. If you don’t succeed there and do end up having to go to Court, you’ve laid the groundwork that you started the process from a non-confrontational, collaborative perspective and the other guy was unreasonable. Pure brilliance.
Second, deal with this claim. You. Personally. Call the owner of the shop, apologize, and tell him that you’ve learned your lesson. Tell him that he is free to keep his shop name, and offer to send him a custom Roubaix to ride. Tell him that you hope he hasn’t incurred any costs, and tell him that his professional response has been illuminating for you and your company, and has helped you rethink your global strategies. Be graceful. Be apologetic. Be honest.
Third, rethink your global strategies. Specialized has a problem suing people. Whether you think you do or not, the public believes that you do. And for a company trying to sell products to the public, what the public thinks is reality. So you do have a problem, and you need to acknowledge that. You need to do something that gets the heat off of you, and makes it clear that you’re trying to be a good influence on the industry. Here’s my suggestion: put together a committee.
Get a group of interested people. Get some bike industry professionals…some pro cyclists…some recreational cyclists…some representatives of your company…maybe even a blogger or two. Put them on a committee (and make them sign a nondisclosure agreement if you must). When you have an intellectual property issue arise, your attorneys prepare a memo outlining the issue, and it goes to the committee. They review it and make a ‘non-legal’ recommendation. They serve as your internal jury, and your public relations conscience. They would have told you to let Cafe Roubaix go. They would have told you to look for opportunities like this to strengthen your brand. Instead of sending a threatening letter, send a positive one…along the lines of “we have a claim to the Roubaix name, but we really appreciate what you are doing, and wish you the best of success. For that reason, we are not going to assert any claims, and we look forward to sharing a place in the industry with you.” On the other hand, if someone starts making carbon fiber road bikes and calling them the Special Venge, the committee will tell you that your claim is legit regardless of who the manufacturer of the bike is. The idea of the committee is to make sure you’re getting an impartial, non-expert view of the situation before you commit to a public course of action.
Fourth, take accountability. Regardless of the attorneys, the office politics, whatever else–you’ve made a career of telling others that the buck stops with you. You need to be responsible for this situation, and as per #2 above, you need to deal with it personally. Even if you create a committee, you still need to be personally involved and personally consulted before any cease and desist letter goes out the door. This is a critical issue, and it’s hurting your company. Badly. Pay attention to it, just like you’d pay attention to your bike design and engineering. It’s hard to convince the public that you’re a good, caring company. It’s easy to convince the public that you’re mean. You’re taking the easy road right now, and from what I’ve read, that’s not your style.
In the end, you get to decide how your company moves forward. The path you’re on now is a destructive one–destructive to others, and self-destructive as well. It’s not working. You’re not racking up public support and legal victories. Rethink it. Innovate your litigation culture just as you innovate your bicycle design. At the end of the day, if people hate what Specialized stands for, they’re going to ride someone else’s bike. It isn’t hard for other bike companies to look nice when you’re doing such an incredible job of being the industry bully.
I wish you well. The bike industry and my options as a consumer both benefit from competition among bike companies. The downfall of Specialized–or even a diminution in your market and ability–would be bad for cyclists everywhere. Think about what you’re doing. Go back to how you would have wanted to be treated when you were in the van. This isn’t it–it can’t be. You can do better. If you “win” this legal battle but lose the industry’s respect and your customer’s support, where does that leave you?
UPDATE: Thanks for all the love, folks. I did want to point out that Chad makes an incredible point below: what if Specialized committed to taking a portion of their legal budget and committing it to advocacy? What better way to create a PR win out of this issue than to support the creation of some bike trails or otherwise work towards building a better bike culture? Fantastic suggestion, Chad.