Wednesday, September 26, 2007

In the epic battle of Worm Poop vs. Miracle-Gro, who's the winner?

It was the epic battle of Worm Poop vs. Corporate Giant. Last week, TerraCycle Inc. and The Scotts Company announced the agreed settlement of their legal dispute regarding false advertising claims and trade dress infringement. In this rather nasty battle, Scotts claimed that TerraCycle, the upstart company founded in 2001 by two Princeton University Freshmen, was infringing on its Miracle-Gro brand. In the end, TerraCycle agreed to change certain advertising claims and its package design to avoid possible consumer confusion, and Scotts agreed to dismiss its false advertising and infringement claims. A September 21 news release by the two companies announcing that they'd resolved their differences made it all sound very proper, with predictable, carefully crafted quotes from Tom Szaky, the founder and CEO of TerraCycle and a Scotts spokesperson.

Is there a clear winner and loser in this battle? Seems to me the Worm Poop guys come out on top. The suit can only be a good thing for TerraCycle, who prior to the suit, didnt even show up on the consumer radar screen. Although there isn't much chance this will become a standard tactic by upstart marketers, you have to admit; the whole mess certainly put TerraCycle on the map.

The bigger picture? I'm old-fashioned enough to think that marketers should use the best and brightest original thinking in product development, branding and media executions. On the other hand, I'm enough of a realist to admit that making your product look like the established big "Brand X" to intentionally confuse the consumer might bring you some degree of short-term success. Enough to charm the buyers at the big mass merchandisers. For them, it's all about the numbers. They don't care how much time, talent, creativity and sweat has gone into a brand. I'm compelled to root for the little guy in this battle, but at the end of the day you have to respect the fact that Scotts has made a huge investment in the brand and has every right to protect it. The guys who use copycat tactics may get some short-term results, but they don't build strong brands. They're perceived as knock-offs, and the consumer has a very short attention span.

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