By Chris Gilmour

You work so hard to build up your brand’s reputation then some chancer comes along and cashes in on it.

Nando’s is the latest chain to be left with a bad taste in its mouth after a small business latched on to its hard-earned name and image.

The owner of Fernando’s – a peri-peri chicken diner in Reading, Berkshire – is annoyed that Nando’s legal team warned him off copying its trademarks.

Nando’s say the diner’s name is too similar to its own, while the cockerel and chilli images on the Fernando’s menu are “highly similar” to its trademarked Barcelos Cockerel and Peri-meter.

The owner of Fernando’s brazenly claims its name was inspired by the holiday island featured in dating show Take Me Out and says he is being “bullied” into changing it.

But how can it be bullying when all Nando’s is doing is protecting its intellectual property? After all, it’s Nando’s reputation that has been co-opted – and that would suffer if anything goes wrong.

Passing off, as the legal trade calls it, is a major problem because the actual brand can find itself dealing with a crisis management situation that is entirely unrelated to its own business if something goes wrong with the copycat.

I’ve always had an interest in copyright and trademarks, even before I studied law. I’ve had lots of clients who have been in a similar position to Nando’s and needed media relations advice, often worried about being seen as the big boy trying to intimidate a small business.

My advice to them? Reputations are hard won and should be defended – and if someone needs to copy your brand and cash in on it because they can’t come up with their own idea then that’s really not your problem.

Brands spend a lot of time and money on reputation builders like Beattie, brand consultants and advertising agencies to establish and maintain reputational control.

The most popular brands sometimes cede control to their customers, who take it over and love it. Think of the cult following of the likes of Nutella and Jack Daniel’s have grown.

So it’s important that when customers do love your brand – and people are passionate about a cheeky Nando’s – that you are fiercely protective of it.

Now, Fernando’s might make great food. It might even be better than Nando’s. But if that’s the case, why not use that to build its own reputation, not piggyback on the big boys?

If the food and service are good enough, people will still come and the owner has the chance to build something for himself. Maybe become a chain, maybe even one day compete with Nando’s.

In this case, if something were to go wrong – a food poisoning outbreak, for example – Nando’s could be caught in the blowback. After all, it would be easy to mistake Fernando’s for a Nando’s sub-brand, in the style of many other famous names on the high street.

Big names can’t be seen to bully the little guy. They just look ridiculous if they are intimidating some lone trader. You don’t see Selfridges hunting down every smart Alec who’s called their second-hand refrigerator emporium Sell Fridges, do you?

Then there’s the laughable attempt by Apple to stop anyone else selling apps calling their service an “app store”. Because App is short for Apple, they claimed. Nice try, but that trademark application – see what I did there – was rightly knocked back.

So, no, coming over all intimidating isn’t the way to do it, particularly if you are a family-friendly, fun brand like Nando’s. And that’s why I think the chicken chain has got its message spot-on.

Its response to the bullying claim was clear: “We are really proud of our brand and we know it means a lot to our customers. That’s why whenever we think there is trademark infringement we try to sort it out amicably.”

It has asked Fernando’s to rebrand because Nando’s believes the diner is “trying to benefit from some of things that make us who we are – our menu, logo and even our name”.

That’s a key message for any business: it’s only your brand and reputation as long as you work to protect it.

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