Business Essentials: When a rival's name sounds just the same

Kate Hilpern looks at an audio college that needs to protect its brand from imitation
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The Independent Online

For almost 14 years, Alchemea has been building a reputation as a respected private college for audio engineering. So it was horrified earlier this year when it found out about the launch of a rival French firm called Alkymia.

"While most of our business comes from a 36-week diploma course, a growing area is more specialised, shorter courses - and that's where Alkymia appears to have similar offerings to us," says Mike Sinnott, a director of Alchemea, based in north London. "Having worked hard to develop a name that's synonymous with excellent training, we think it's pretty cheeky."

Among his concerns is that people will assume Alkymia is in some way linked to Alchemea. "After all, it is pronounced the same.

"If it provides poor training, it might affect our reputation," Mr Sinnott explains. "And even if it doesn't, we are left feeling frustrated that its business could grow on the back of our standing in the sector. That feels unfair. So we want to know if we have any legal rights and if there is anything we can do in terms of protecting our brand."

Audio engineering is very competitive, he says, so Alch- emea is proud that around 85 per cent of its diploma graduates are working in the industry within six months of graduating. The college's shorter courses also enjoy an impressive track record.

While most of its students end up working in recording studios, others move into radio broadcasting, multimedia and sound for film.

Mr Sinnott admits Alchemea is not a big player, but feels that its niche position works in its favour. "We believe in small class sizes, which means students get lots of personal attention. We also ensure more hands-on practical time than any other college we know of. That we work so closely with the providers of industry standard equipment is another factor contributing to our success."

Indeed, one thing Mr Sinnott is not particularly anxious about is Alkymia becoming a serious rival. "We have to keep in mind that the college is based in a studio in Blagnac, France, while we are in London," he explains. "We do have quite a high proportion of international students, and it is possible that some French ones who want to do a short course could choose them over us. But I don't think we're talking about big numbers."

www.alchemea.com

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

Paul Harris, intellectual property partner, Hammonds (commercial law firm)

"There appears to be no activity by Alkymia in the UK that infringes Alchemea's rights, though there may be a case under French law. But as Mr Sinnott does not believe it will become a serious rival, legal action would not be a particularly cost-effective or proportionate response at present.

"There are practical steps that can be taken. Alchemea should attempt to obtain trademark protection as the name is probably distinctive enough to be registered, particularly given the length of time for which it has been used.

"Mr Sinnott should also consider whether he wants trademark protection only in the UK, or for the entirety of the EU. This may allow him to enforce his rights in the French courts.

"If Alkymia is not pursued formally, an eye should still be kept out for what the competition are doing. Any evidence of trademark infringement or passing off should be collected, to ensure nobody is linking their courses to Alchemea. Should rivals start 'borrowing' programmes or using its materials, it may need to consider legal action."

Peter Fisk, author, Marketing Genius

"Great brands inevitably encourage imitation, so focus on what you can do better and differently.

"Brands are compelling when they are about the people they aim to benefit, rather than describing companies or products. Alchemea should seek to be famous for great sound engineers - for being a centre of excellence.

"Demonstrate that you are the leading thinkers through expert papers, defining a set of professional standards, sponsoring industry awards, and showcasing new techniques as well as new talent.

"Gain endorsement from the leading professionals, production companies and equipment brands. Ensure that you come out top when people search online for any sound engineering keywords.

"These actions will change the way in which people think of you, in the same way that Nike, for example, inspires sporting achievement rather than just promoting its shoes."

Stewart Masterton, business adviser, Business Link for London

"While registration of a title, mark or jingle is a low-cost imperative, there are many other ways of protecting the name and image of the company.

"Some simple tactical actions such as ensuring its logo is visible in all areas of the firm - on business cards, stationery and the website - will help ensure the brand is instantly recognisable.

"At a strategic level, the brand values of excellent training, high pass rates and student career successes will add further support to its position as the trainer of first choice."

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