The holy month of Ramadan is traditionally a time for abstinence, purification, contemplation and giving. This has an impact throughout the Middle East, with fasting during the day often followed by a lively atmosphere after sunset when families and friends get together to break the fast.

This year, with Ramadan falling from June to July, Coca- Cola Middle East has launched a campaign which, in line with the values of Ramadan, is aimed at tackling prejudice through the stereotyping of individuals. The key aspects  of this campaign have involved the removal of written branding, which has also caused us to engage in some professional contemplation of our own.

Cokes a ‘World without labels’ campaign

During Ramadan, Coca-Cola Middle East launched a ‘World without labels’ campaign. The stated aim of the campaign was to fight prejudice and remove stereotypes by reminding the public that ‘labels are for cans and not people’.

To support the campaign, Coca-Cola Middle East released a video of a number of men sitting in a completely dark room talking about their likes and dislikes. The men are challenged to consider how they picture the other people in the room, such as the heavy metal fan or the well-read

individual. When the lights are switched on the heavy metal fan was dressed in a business suit, whereas the well-read person had full facial and body tattoos.

A branding perspective

The fact that the focus of the campaign was aligned with the traditional values of Ramadan is not in itself unusual. It is common for major brands to seek to align themselves and promote these values during the holy month.

However, the surprising element, from a branding perspective, is that Coca-Cola Middle East dared to remove the words ‘Coca-Cola’ from its cans. In a limited edition range of cans, all written branding was removed, leaving only the signature white ribbon on the classic red cans and the words ‘Labels are for cans not for people’.  

All Coca-Cola branding was removed from a limited edition of red Coke cans.

Many may be surprised by Coca-Cola Middle East’s decision to remove written branding from its cans. However, from a trade mark law perspective, is this really as risky as it seems?

We think not. If anything, this promotion should help The Coca-Cola Company expand its rights by demonstrating that the public are able to recognise cans of Coca-Cola without the need for written branding.

If members of the public are able to recognise cans of Coca-Cola through the get-up of the can alone (a vertical white ribbon across a red background), then this indicates that this get-up is functioning as a trade mark.

Those readers who are trade mark practitioners in the UK will remember how difficult this is to achieve from the well-known ‘Have a Break’ case (in which Nestle was unable to demonstrate that the slogan ‘Have a Break’ was capable of existing as a trade mark in its own right because of its use and association with the main brand ‘Kit-Kat’).

This line of thinking has been repeated in other cases in the UK, such as B&Q’s application for You Can Do It… and also another Nestle case involving the shape of the Kit-Kat bar where Nestle could not show that consumers relied on the shape alone to identify the products.

In the example of the Coca-Cola ‘World without labels’ 

campaign, the feedback on the Coca-Cola website includes an individual stating ‘The label-less cans look elegant but are still unquestionably Coke’, which helps demonstrate that at least one person can recognise the cans through the get-up alone.

The Coca-Cola campaign seems to be a case of ‘No branding = stronger trade mark rights’. This is an unusual equation, but an important one as many brand owners have experienced a growth in actions against lookalike products and lookalike businesses in recent years.

Often in the Middle East, the question of whether a trade mark has been infringed comes down to a question of confusion, with brand owners having to overcome the premise that ‘if the words are different, how can there be confusion?’ Anything that can be done to build up rights in non-written branding should help the fight against lookalikes.

With its ‘World without labels’ campaign, Coca-Cola Middle East has taken steps to build recognition and goodwill in the get-up of its product, over and above the written trade mark. Ultimately, this should help support any trade mark registrations held by The Coca-Cola Company for the get- up of the product and the enforcement of any such trade marks against those dealing in lookalike products.

Are we really entering a ‘World without labels’?

So are we now entering a world without brands? Does this mean all trade mark attorneys and IP lawyers need to start planning for new careers?

Again, we think not. Written branding is still extremely important and only once sufficient rights have been established in both the main written trade mark and in the get-up of a product, should a brand owner consider removing the written branding..

Other brand owners such as Google and Mars, Inc have also taken steps to build rights in this way, through varying the way in which they use their written trade marks and by using alternative words within the recognisable brand flag. What Coca-Cola has done very well with this campaign is to bring its ‘No label’ product to the attention of public and media.

To view Coca-Cola Middle East’s ‘World without labels’ campaign, click here: