Lions & Tigers & Gators … A Cautionary Tale About Branding, Ethics and the Law

Steve Mulvenon, Ph.D.
Steve Mulvenon, Ph.D.

Some trends are positive. They signal a new product or service that holds promise, and you want to, or need to, be a part of it. Think social media. Some trends are less so; they signal litigation, expense and public embarrassment. Think “borrowing” a university’s trademarked logo. This is a story of the latter and it’s not the sort of trend you’ll want to be a part of.

‘Cease and Desist’ Letters

The Washington Post, New York Times and Dallas Morning News have all carried stories in the last year about school districts running into trademark battles. Typically, athletic directors receive a “cease and desist” letter from a university stating that their school’s logo is a copy of the university logo. Since universities protect their “trademarks” under federal law, they order the school to change its logo. What follows is a brief primer on how to avoid a public fiasco, along with some advice on how to protect, or “trademark,” logos currently in use by your school district.

First, here’s the mandatory disclaimer: this column should not be taken as legal advice. Consult an attorney in all such matters. The law on intellectual property can be tricky, and it’s always best to leave such matters to those trained in this arena.

Lawsuits Are Unusual, but Costs Can Be High

Colleges and universities seem to be more aggressive in protecting their logos than are the professional sports teams. Penn State, Clemson, Florida, Kansas State, Texas and Michigan have gone after schools for what they considered trademark infringements against their Lion, Tiger, Gator, Wildcat, Longhorn and “block M” logos, respectively.

Lawsuits are unusual. But even changing a logo is no small matter and certainly not an inexpensive one. Besides the bad publicity that ensues, there is the cost involved in developing a new design, repainting or remaking school signage, buying new decals for football helmets, ordering new uniforms and reprinting letterhead. One high school athletic director estimated his school spent $60,000 doing so. Another put the cost at $100,000. The public would clearly see this as an unnecessary expense. Can you see letters to the editor?

Let NSPRA Help You Be Prepared for Anything

NSPRA’s Complete Crisis Communication Management Manual
NSPRA’s Complete Crisis Communication Management Manual is a best seller for good reason: school leaders know a crisis can strike at any moment and this manual makes sure you’re ready. Over the years, school leaders across the country have relied on this invaluable resource as a guide to navigate the treacherous communication challenges that a crisis presents. When a crisis strikes, the first 30 minutes are the most crucial.
See the Table of Contents, and Order now!

Don’t think just because the news has focused on universities that pro teams automatically turn a blind eye to such matters. When the Washoe County School District in Reno, Nev., opened a new high school with a panther mascot, the NFL’s Carolina Panthers took exception to the school’s “appropriating” their well-known panther logo and sent the school a letter. The district quickly, with much chagrin, changed the design but kept the colors.

So, how does one avoid all this drama and keep your district out of the news? First, remember the 7th Commandment; “Thou shall not steal.” Seriously, if your logo is a direct copy, change it. Alternatively, contact the owner of the logo and seek permission. Kansas State routinely has approved use of its “Powercat” logo for as little as $1 a year. It does, however, prohibit using it with the crimson and blue colors of archrival Kansas University. Second, even if the logo is not an exact copy, you could still be in hot water if it’s close enough to create confusion in the mind of the public. Again, seek permission or change it.

To Trademark or Not to Trademark

The other side of this coin is the issue of whether you should trademark an existing logo used by your district or one of your schools. Here’s where you really need the help of a lawyer. But first, ask yourself two questions. Do you care that a Little League team calls itself the same thing as one of your high schools and uses the same logo? Would you send them a “cease and desist” letter and risk the negative publicity of the big, bad school district picking on poor, defenseless children? Maybe you should just be flattered and let it go. More realistically, you might want to protect the design of your district logo. Here there is the serious question of whether your design is distinctive enough to even be trademarked.

Guidelines and instructive videos about how to register a trademark are available from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (www.uspto.gov). It’s far too complex to go into here, but suffice it to say that it is a multi-step, time-consuming process that does have a price tag.

A Question of ‘Branding’

Why have universities become so protective of their logos? It seems to be a question of branding. According to some university officials, it’s not about the money – from sales of athletic wear and paraphernalia – as much as it is about protecting their brand from dilution. Universities have recognized the importance of image and branding for many years. And today, school public relations professionals and many school district administrators also realize the role that a unique “brand” plays in marketing and public relations.

Having a recognized logo and school district brand is a positive trend. But, you want to be a “trendsetter” with an original or unique logo, not a “borrower” of someone else’s trademarked image. Remember, it’s best to let sleeping lions and tigers and gators lie.

Steve Mulvenon, Ph.D., is owner and lead consultant of Mulvenon Media Relations in Sparks, Nev. He is the former Director of Communications for Washoe County School District in Reno, Nev.