The organized retail and service sector is back on track post-COVID slump. All services are delivered multi-channel. Pure play cloud kitchens operate in the economic range, while the branded operators distribute their services through multiple channels. Demand generation now means the brand should have a presence and connection to the target audience. Everyone wants a trademark that associates with the audience from the beginning and needs little marketing campaign. A few days back, a fellow alumnus shared the storefront of a restaurant in the NCR region which had a phonetic match with a roadside food outlet on the campuses of one of my universities. Are there any issues and challenges in doing so?
This brand name will mean a lot to the IIT community as there is an inherent sense of nostalgia. The community will like to get the funny names the dishes had on campus. Maybe the restaurant is already serving those (I am yet to visit the restaurant). IIT is a big brand and generates enough curiosity in people’s minds. So there will be some people who will get attracted to such a brand. They will like to see great decor and service quality than the menu. As an alumnus sent the storefront on WhatsApp, I assume the restaurant is doing social networking and viral marketing and letting everyone know of its presence.
No investor will like to invest in a business that has a shortlived brand identity. So they will impress upon the founders to develop the store along the IIT connection. They will also like to own the trademark for the brand. Themed restaurants are not a new concept. There have been several well-known ones in decades. Most operators of themed restaurants keep their own identity different from the theme brand. Sayaji Hotels started Barbecue Nations; once the brand got established, it became a publicly traded company. Ohri runs several themed restaurants like Gufaa and Tadka. When a brand does not succeed, they kill it and continue to conduct business under its original brand. If the restaurant under discussion has only this brand name for itself, then the investors will prefer to register the brand name in the company’s name.
Who owns the trademark?
Just like copyrights, trademarks do not need explicit registration. The brand name we are discussing here is Kallumal. Kallumal is a funny-looking character from a famous Bollywood movie Chameli ki Shaadi. A group of students had a late-night party and watched a movie in a nearby movie hall. They reached the roadside food outlet outside the campus; they instantly likened the owner to the movie character Kallumal. With much aversion from the owner of the outlet, the name stuck onto the students’ minds overages. Today, the food outlet proudly displays Kallumal as its name. The original Kallumal is no longer alive, but his kith and kins run the outlet catering to the needs of the IIT campus. The NCR restaurant names itself Kalumal; they have the same menu items as Minky’s Special (a term popular on the IIT campus for bun omelets). They have plans for a pan-India presence. Are they passing off as the original Kallumal? If the matter is adjudicated, with the financial condition of the original owners, they may not get into such a case. In the last thirty-odd years, Kallumal has only added a concrete roof to its outlet. So passing off the claim will probably not stand as there is hardly any pan-India establishment called Kallumal.
Is the Kallumal trademark not owned by the alumni association of the IIT? One unknown alumnus christened the outlet, the rest popularized it and the owner never accepted it in the first place. So, he has no right to the trademark. This argument is not sustainable because the owner’s livelihood depends on the brand Kallumal.
Think of a third party who sees the opportunity to collude with the original Kallumal, and license this trademark to create a collection of IIT-based brands that he can sell to other business owners who have no connection with the IIT. He will not only block the brand owner of Kalumal of NCR or any other restaurant ever planned by any other alumni under the same brand name.
What is the way forward?
For any brand, the storyline sells best when there is source associativity. So, it will be an interesting marketing campaign when you launch a new restaurant in NCR and involve the original Kallumal as part of the campaign and he endorses it. This ensures the brand gets a true identity from its roots. It may be a bit expensive but much cheaper than later claiming rights in a court of law. When one alumnus registers the brand, he blocks all the other alumni from using the same trademark. It’s only logical to argue the brand is a collective identity for the alumni; no individual alumnus can lay claim to it. The alumni associations should consider protecting their collective mark by coordinating with these owners so that any alumnus can be authorized to use such a trademark. Are you in such a situation now? What are your plans?
Note: Names of the brands have been changed to maintain the privacy of the owners.
Sambit Kumar Dash is a founding director of Lenatics Solutions Pvt Ltd, which provides product management services to businesses for Sustained Competitive Advantage. You can reach him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.