A legal brouhaha — or in this case, brew-haha, — is over, thanks to the power of social media.
On Sept. 14, Matt Nadeau, owner of Rock Art Brewery in Morrisville, Vt., received a cease and desist letter from a lawyer for Hansen’s Beverage Company, owner of the popular Monster energy drinks, demanding that he pull one of his beers — the Vermonster — off the market. A potent barleywine clocking in at 10 percent ABV and 100 IBU (beer talk for really, really powerful stuff), the Vermonster was an aptly named behemoth. However, Hansen’s interpreted this as a threat. The company’s letter alleged that use of the Vermonster name infringed Hansen’s trademark rights and constituted unfair competition.
It’s dubious that Hansen’s had a real case, since “the crux of infringement [was] a likelihood of consumer confusion and it seems doubtful that many consumers would confuse a regionally-brewed alcoholic beverage as being produced by a national energy drink company,” said Ryan Fant, a Stanford law student specializing in intellectual property. However, Hansen’s had the upper hand: The legal fees from fighting the accusation would likely bankrupt Nadeau and force Rock Art out of business.
But Nadeau decided to fight back. Using social media and digital communication, he quickly gathered supporters.
He began by talking with his customers, who took the story to the local paper. He posted the cease-and-desist letter on his Web site and e-mailed everyone he knew; many of those people forwarded his e-mail to their contacts, who forwarded it to their contacts.
Nadeau tweeted his case to @rockartbrewery‘s 307 followers on Oct. 3. The following day, the brewery had 377 followers; it currently has 1,508. Hashtags such as #boycottmonster, #isupportrockart and #Vermonster sprung up. People added badges with X-ed out images of Monster cans to their avatars.
Green River Pictures donated their services and created a six-minute video for YouTube, posted on Oct. 14. In it, Nadeau described the brewery’s humble beginnings and what the fight meant to him as a brewer, a small-business owner and a Vermonter. Within five days, the video had 63,334 views.
Bloggers from across the country expressed outrage and encouraged others to join the fight. “The fact that this is how corporate America operates is pretty disgusting. If you don’t drink energy drinks, tell your friends that do to stop buying Monster. Post on message boards. If you own a store, pull your stock and stop buying it; there are plenty of other popular energy drinks out there,” wrote Seattle Beer News on Oct. 14.
A University of Vermont student created a Facebook group called Vermonters and Craft Beer Drinkers Against Monster, which grew to more than 16,000 members in less than two weeks. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders even made an appeal for Rock Art by writing Hansen’s CEO a letter.
Hansen’s didn’t predict this kind of reaction. After deciding it would be more profitable to end the craziness altogether, Hansen’s accepted Nadeau’s terms — an offer it had previously rejected — on Oct. 21. Rock Art would be allowed to continue to brew and distribute Vermonster. For Hansen’s, the situation backfired. Instead of ridding the market permanently of Vermonster, thousands of people now know the name and will seek it out. Many involved will continue to boycott Monster and Hansen’s products.
The case was successful because Nadeau and Rock Art were able to quickly provide high-quality, shareable content, which became more in-depth and legitimate as the case snowballed in popularity. Both Twitter and Facebook allowed supporters to pass along articles and blog posts covering the affair, circulate an online petition and share the YouTube video and links to Hansen’s customer service page.
In addition, the outrage came from multiple niches. Craft-beer lovers, notoriously sensitive to the actions of large businesses after years of Anheuser-Busch dominance, rallied in support — even those who had never taken a sip of Rock Art. Vermonters, staunchly anti-commercial residents of a state where even billboards are illegal, took umbrage to a large California company telling one of their own what to do. Plus, the injustice of a large corporation bullying a small mom-and-pop business was enough to unleash anyone’s inner Michael Moore. Nadeau strategically focused on each of these aspects in his YouTube video, ensuring he would receive everyone’s attention.
The incredible viral rallying power of the Internet gave tiny Rock Art Brewery an equal voice with Hansen’s Beverage Company. As Nadeau said in his Oct. 22 letter to supporters, “This was accomplished by Americans communicating and working together and using the POWER of SPEECH. This speech was harnessed through traditional media as well as the new social media such as Twitter, FaceBook, Blog sites, e-mail lists and web sites to name a few. … It’s the same right we have had from our forefathers, free speech. It has been adjusted to meet the new demands of today’s world.”
I’ll drink to that.
image from Sioux Brew
Helen Pitlick has been a student in the MCDM program since spring 2009. She works with social media as an intern at Foodista.com, and in her spare time she reviews craft beer.