Cereal offenders

By Brand Heeler

Another case of a business not trusting its consumers to be smart enough to distinguish similar brands.

One of the more impassioned discussions at breakfast in our multi-cultural home (after the titanic Vegemite/Marmite face-off, of course) is whether you should spell Weetabix with an ‘a’ and does Weet-Bix actually taste better. It never seems to do much good to point out that only Weetabix carries the Royal Warrant of the Queen of Australia.

For those not in the know, both products are roughly rectangular biscuits of whole grain wheat sold as breakfast cereals, but with slight variations in taste and texture. Their origins each lie in 1920s Australia and, much as it may hurt Poms to admit it, Weet-Bix is indeed the senior brand. When the Aussie and Kiwi production companies were sold out from under the inventor (one Bennison Osborne) in the 30s, he started up again in Kettering, UK with an updated recipe and an extra vowel. So there we have it: on the one hand, the stalwart British Weetabix (so British it’s currently being acquired by Post Holdings of Missouri from Bright Foods of China!) and, on the other, the Antipodean Weet-Bix (proudly brought to you by Sanitarium, the trading arm of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church).

For homesick Brits in New Zealand, the news that 300 boxes of genuine Weetabix had landed in Christchurch must have seemed like a godsend, as well as being easier to pronounce. Until, that is, Customs officers impounded them at Sanitarium’s request, apparently for fear that customers might be confused. A flurry of ‘David v Goliath’ press coverage has followed and Sanitarium have apparently offered a compromise: the Weetabix can be released if the offending ‘Weetabix’ name is overstickered on the packaging and blanked out online. But can there really be that much risk of confusion? The names are admittedly similar (but with a crucial distinction – that hyphen/glottal stop versus the more dactylic ‘a’), but the packaging and colour schemes are wholly different (see below), and the respective markets – and their palates – are actually fairly dissimilar too.

Sanitarium’s concerns seem to do a disservice to everyone involved – it’s a bit like Manchester United suggesting their supporters could be taken in by Man City’s ‘confusingly similar’ name.

Sanitarium’s response is that they are doing no more than enforcing their rights as they are entitled to. Social media, however, begs to disagree, with #freetheweetabix trending at the head of calls to boycott Sanitarium and drawing attention to its unusual tax status as a registered charity. As we’ve mentioned before, businesses should think carefully before messing with popular consumer brands and remember that a solid legal argument can often flounder in the face of a heartfelt emotional response.

Consumers don’t appreciate being patronised or used as pawns by overzealous brands lawyers: we may not always be right, but we prefer to decide for ourselves if we find something confusing, thank you very much.

This article contains our thoughts and opinions on an issue of general interest and is written from the perspective of Australian and/or English law. It is not legal advice and is not provided in the context of a solicitor-client relationship. It may not even be relevant to your jurisdiction. No duty of care is assumed or accepted. Please carry out appropriate research and consult with a suitably qualified legal expert before taking any action or making any decisions.