First Fiat and its “Gingo” new car name, then Alliance & Leicester and a car value depreciation report, now Volkswagen and misleading “first hatchback” claims. Renault is having a busy time with its lawyers.
Who: Renault v Fiat, Alliance & Leicester and VW
When: July 2003 – March 2004
In no less than three high profile cases over the last 8 months, Renault has flexed its legal muscles against other big brands.
In July 2003, Renault took a tough stance against Fiat, who were on the threshold of launching their new 'Gingo' city car. Renault argued that its 'Twingo' registered trademark would be infringed by Fiat's use of Gingo, and at the last minute Fiat backed down, dropped the Gingo name and launched a new car under the dusted-off 'Panda' brand.
Laguna depreciation issue
Then, in January 2004, it was Alliance & Leicester's turn to feel Renault's wrath. In this case, the problem was the latest edition of a report on car values sponsored by Alliance & Leicester and produced for it by the Centre for Economic and Business Research (CEBR). Put out as a public relations exercise to support Renault's car loans business, the report suggested that the Renault Laguna lost its value faster than any other car in the UK.
Renault slammed the report, making all sorts of unpleasant remarks about the quality of CEBR's research and branding the Alliance & Leicester initiative as a "dubious marketing exercise."
Without admitting liability, Alliance & Leicester pulled the report from its website, but recent marketing press comment suggests that the matter remains unresolved, with Renault continuing to argue that the report was fundamentally flawed because the Laguna on sale today is not the same as the model sold three years ago, when the A&L annual reports first started appearing.
Golf historical links incorrect
In the most recent case, Renault leaned on VW and its advertising agency DDB London over advertising for the latest iteration of VW's Golf, which also celebrated the car's 30th anniversary.
VW booked all the advertising space in one weekly issue of the Auto Express and the introductory insertion stated "1974 was a milestone in motoring history. The launch of the first ever hatchback. Our very own Volkswagen Golf."
The problem was that this was simply untrue. As Renault forcefully pointed out, it was the French car maker that first created the hatchback with its 1961 Renault 4 and 1965 16.
VW spokesman was quoted as saying that this was a regrettable mix up by their agency. VW apologised and the advertisement was not run again.
Why this matters:
This sequence of three cases, all featuring one car manufacturer, neatly illustrates the ways in which on the one hand marketers can fall foul of competitors and other brand owners when they might least expect it, and on the other how the taking of rapid, forceful and well-publicised action can be extremely effective, also potentially avoiding the need for lengthy and costly dispute resolution procedures before the result is achieved.
Although the A&L matter does not appear to have been settled, the offending report disappeared from view quickly after the complaint was raised. No doubt the continuing discussions between A&L and Renault are not unrelated to the possible difficulty in identifying Renault's cause of action against A&L. One issue that might be under debate is whether the matter might fall under the CAP Code at all given this was a report on car values.
Our sense on this is that it probably would not do because even if it is published as a public relations exercise and sponsored by Renault, the content itself is essentially editorial, not a marketing communication. Also from a legal point of view, the picture is not clear cut. It would be difficult for Renault to argue that the report libels the manufacturer as such, whilst a case in 'malicious falsehood' is always going to be difficult to make out. CEBR, on the other hand, might have a runner in their counterclaim for libel arising out of Renault's derogatory remarks about their report.
In the Renault/Fiat case, a UK court might grapple with the question of whether "Gingo" is confusingly similar to "Twingo," whilst in the case of the VW ad, it is very much a Code issue and the case against VW seems to have been pretty open and shut.