Tuesday, November 5, 2002

A Brand Battle Smack Down

I'll be honest...I don't really like wrestling. Gladiator combat, I could enjoy, but professional wrestling isn't my thing. But I do appreciate design, drama, and irony. For once, wrestling has served up all three.

It's the story of a wrestling organization called Titan Sports, Inc. They slowly made a name for themselves, and some of their superstar leotard-clad warriors, as the Worldwide Wrestling Federation, better known to you and me as the WWF.

And while Hulk Hogan and the Undertaker were promoting an increasingly popular WWF to legions of followers, another WWF was watching from ringside – The World Wildlife Fund.

The stage was set for a classic grudge-match.

The two organizations began fighting over the name "WWF" in 1989, ten years after the wrestlers adopted the moniker, almost thirty years after the environmentalists had. By 1993 the wildlife fund sued the wrestlers in Swiss court. A year later the parties came to a mutually amicable agreement: The wrestlers would cancel pending WWF trademark applications – they already controlled the US trademark – and restrict the use of the "WWF" mark in broadcast and print materials outside the United States.

For eight years the two groups settled. Then, like so often, the Internet came along and screwed up everything.

In 2001 the wildlife fund renewed the fray, claiming that the wrestlers had violated the 1994 agreement by continuing to use the "WWF" mark outside the United States and that their WWF.com website internationally dominated the fund website, PANDA.org.

This time there could be no compromise agreement – it was going to be an all-out trademark smack-down.

Tried in British courts, the wrestlers were found guilty of violating the existing agreement – the abbreviated logo violated the wildlife fund's trademark rights. Despite a temporary stay granted by the United Kingdom’s Court of Appeal, the High Court of Justice Chancery Division upheld the original decision.

Now the wrestlers faced a dilemma. "WWF" had enormous brand equity and recognition. How could they change their name, conforming with the court-ruling, and still hold on to their hard-built identity?

First, they set up WWE.com with a redirect from WWF.com (a little Web development company, World Wide Express, made a killing selling off their URL to the wrestlers). Second, they changed their name to World Wrestling Entertainment Inc, debuting the new logo on the May 6, 2002 episode of "Raw".

They then set about a five month plan to change their name. The WWE supplied new logo art to business partners, licensees and vendors. They also gradually changed the logo on broadcast media. Over two months their signature "scratch" logo – the contested letters "WWF" – metamorphosized. The "W's" nestled closer and closer together, the "F" becoming less and less prominent. Their slogan during the transition: "Get The 'F' Out." Classy.

Like good wrestlers, though, they've taken the fall and have turned it around to their advantage. The new WWE applauds its new name, bragging that it "provides us with a global identity that is distinct and unencumbered, which is critical to our U.S. and international growth plans."

It seems likely that the change would have been inevitable. With WWE stars like the Rock appearing more and more frequently in print and film media (as in the WWE-produced "The Scorpion King" and related History Channel programming) and with the company's foreign markets growing aggressively, it seems likely that a face-off with the WWF would have occured sooner-or-later. fb

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