Hard Rock is an internationally recognisable brand. WIPR spoke to Rebecca Roby, senior director of business affairs, about protecting the company’s trademarks.
Hard Rock International began life as a restaurant, Hard Rock Cafe, in London in 1971, set up by two Americans. It was 1978 before Hard Rock Cafe expanded to multiple locations. Today, the company has more than 140 cafe, hotel and/ or casino locations in more than 50 countries around the world, each with distinctive rock music memorabilia adorning the walls. But the brand’s iconic theme did not emerge until 1978, seven years after the brand was launched.
Hard Rock’s trademark and brand management strategy has had to adapt to unforeseen circumstances and to evolve rapidly to deal with the demands of rapid expansion. Rebecca Roby manages the company’s trademark portfolio of approximately 2,000 marks, encompassing not just restaurants but also merchandise, hotels and, more recently, casinos.
“We’re really a one-name brand,” she says. “We have the brand extensions into different hospitality segments; Hard Rock Cafes, Hard Rock Hotels and Hard Rock Casinos, but what we are really all about is the core Hard Rock brand.
"We do not have any sub-brands or subproducts that are marketed independently from the Hard Rock brand. By maintaining our focus and emphasis on the Hard Rock brand, we are able to strengthen the pillars of the Hard Rock brand: authenticity, passion, irreverence and unpredictability," she adds.
The company faces challenges common to lots of brands, but almost uniquely, it has had to chase down infringers from the second it decided to expand. Since the brand’s launch, the company has been owned by different people and, at times, the rights to the Hard Rock Cafe brand have even been utilised or controlled by different entities in different countries.
All this means that Hard Rock had to learn the hard way what brand protection entails—lessons that have since paid off in spades. One of the biggest issues—international imitation or effective theft of the concept—is a legacy of that initial unpreparedness for international expansion and lack of proper protection of the Hard Rock marks on an international level.
“Some of the issues we’ve found in terms of actual pirate establishments—a lot pre-dates my time with the company—stem back to the 70s when the UK was our first location and there were copycats with an opportunistic attitude, who took the brand to other countries prior to our brand thinking of going international,” Roby says.
“So we have had some challenges in terms of dealing with jurisdictions where we hadn’t even registered our trademarks yet or even necessarily foreseen that it was going to go global at that time. We had issues in Canada and Germany. We will start with legal proceedings to add pressure, but sometimes it has ended up being a business solution in the end.
"That said, where the law allows us to rely on the worldwide fame of our Hard Rock trademarks or copyright rights in the famous Hard Rock logo, then we will rely on the courts to do the job for us, which has worked well for us in such countries as Bolivia, Croatia and Greece.
“In terms of our bigger problems these days— newer pirate locations that pop up occasionally —I think that after the company learnt from some previous difficult situations, it did work on expanding its international portfolio and so we do have our registered rights in the jurisdictions that we care about, even if we aren’t actually present there yet.
"The expanded portfolio combined with the brand being famous or well-known on an international level has enabled us to take a more active and aggressive role in policing the brand in more recent years, which in turn has allowed us to deal with newer pirates much more easily.”
While the restaurants are still probably the best known of Hard Rock’s assets, anyone who has eaten in one will know that the associated merchandise is at least as significant. Branded t-shirts and pins in particular provide lucrative revenue streams, and the problems posed to the company’s IP attorneys in these markets are very different from competitive restaurants and require different strategies.
“The unique thing about our merchandise—what a lot of people don’t realise—is that authentic Hard Rock merchandise can only be purchased inside Hard Rock establishments or online at hardrock.com. So, if you find merchandise in a different hotel or in just a little shop on a street, that’s not going to be authorised, that’s not going to be us,” Roby says.
“There’s no question [that if you see Hard Rock merchandise for sale in a street market], that will be completely unauthorised. One thing we take pride in—in the brand being so collectable and unique—is that really the only way you can access it, particularly ones that include the city drop, you know the classic logo t-shirts that say ‘London’ underneath, is only if you went to the cafe and visited the Rock Shop to purchase the item.
"We do have our own retail shop online on our website, but there you cannot buy city-specific items; the only way you can get a city-specific item is by visiting a Hard Rock establishment.”
But if Hard Rock sells merchandise online, so can others, and this presents its own problems.
“We do enforcement there too, we use the Vero electronic monitoring tool provided by eBay and we manage that in-house. With eBay, it’s a little bit of a finer line because what we see more of there is the resale of legitimate items, particularly in the soft merchandise category," says Roby.
"The expanded portfolio combined with the brand being famous on an international level has enabled us to take a more active and aggressive role in policing [it]"
"Because of the collectability of the Hard Rock’s brand itself, one of our key merchandise areas really is with our pins, just like fans of Disney collecting and trading their pins. Our pins are very unique and very popular in the collectability and trading market, so we do a lot of work monitoring the pins on eBay because we do see instances of counterfeit pins coming out of China.
"eBay is a good tool for us to track down and become aware of some counterfeit problems—usually, we learn about them first on eBay and then we work to get back to the source in China.”
She continues: “Oftentimes, we’ll do test purchases because the technology behind how our pins are manufactured and how you tell whether or not they’re legitimate is very sophisticated. You can’t necessarily tell sometimes just by seeing the pictures on eBay, because ones that are counterfeited will look exactly like a design that we maybe did sell in the Hard Rock Cafe Barcelona, for example.
"More often than not, the fake pin is not going to be so readily apparent. It’s not going to be a design that was never designed by us but what will be different is in how the pin is manufactured, which often is only visible to a trained eye upon close physical inspection.
"You sometimes can’t even tell that from eBay or eBay won’t have a picture of the back side, and so what will tip us off sometimes is if we see 50 of the same pin being sold and we know it was a limited edition, so such high numbers on eBay are not possible.
“But frankly, one of our biggest assets in terms of tracking these counterfeit pins down and becoming aware of them are fans—the collectors. They send us emails all the time saying, ‘Hey, check out this eBay seller, look what one she has’, or ‘I know you only made 300 of this one and this guy’s selling 200, how can he really have that many?’, and so our fans are our biggest ally in helping us track these items down and they do a lot of the leg work for us!”
This is an approach that pays dividends: using enthusiasm for a brand as a way of policing it fits neatly with the trend towards customer-driven brands. If the Internet is more and more an opensource environment, where users of technologies develop and improve them, so a sensible trademark strategy might be one in which a brand owner encourages its users to take ownership of potential threats against it.
If a customer comes to a company to report a potential infringement, the company wins twice: because it discovers an infringement when it might not otherwise have done; and because its customer is even further entrenched in the values and the value of the brand. Roby argues that this is not the only area in which Hard Rock takes an innovative approach to trademark protection.
“I think we’re more dynamic in the sense that we are not just a restaurant,” she says. “We are more than just a class 43 type of entity. We have the entertainment and philanthropic sides of our business, we have our expansion into the hotel and casino areas, and we have our very desirable merchandise line, so I think compared to other restaurant brands, our areas of interest and what we monitor and what we care about are more diverse.
"That, combined with the fact that the brand itself, the Hard Rock name, has risen to a level in a lot of countries of being a famous or well-known mark means that we have been able to also scale back some of our trademark filings or at least the classes we cover, and rely more on our core classes now and the fame or well-known status of the brand.
“Since we’ve been around for almost 40 years, we can rely on our fame to some degree, but the flip side is that our name, in its meaning, is descriptive of a certain genre of music and so, in some countries, we still have to deal with that—we have had trouble trying to protect just the phrase ‘hard rock’ in certain jurisdictions for certain services and so we’ll have to combine it with the logo or the generic terms ‘casino’, ‘cafe’, things like that.”
Perhaps the key point is one of company structure. Roby says: “I am constantly in contact with all the other business divisions, be it marketing, merchandising, hotels, franchise operations and the actual units in the field, and I have direct access to them, and they to me. So we’re really strategising a lot more on our gross plans on the business angle.
"In the past, in some of my jobs, I felt I was much more pigeon-holed in terms of ‘you just do trademarks all the time’ and you don’t learn the business side so much. Here, I’m an integral part of the business angle as well. I think that helps me protect the Hard Rock brand better because I really get an understanding of where my business colleagues are looking to take the brand, which means I’m not necessarily having to play catch-up—I feel that I’m involved on the ground level, which is beneficial to all—the business teams, the legal team and the overall strength and growth of the Hard Rock brand for the future.”
This article was first published on 01 June 2010 in World IP Review
Hard, Rock, cafe, trademarks, protection, enforcement, piracy