One little firm loses its marbles over a website

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The Independent Online

It's a marketing man's nightmare: you spend millions on the design and promotion of your new Internet brand - and then you realise that someone else owns the name of the website.

It's a marketing man's nightmare: you spend millions on the design and promotion of your new Internet brand - and then you realise that someone else owns the name of the website.

That's just what has happened to HFC Bank, whose £10m launch, including prime-time television advertising, of its new "marbles" Internet credit card has led to puzzled would-be users heading for the website at www.marbles.co.uk - which for the past eight years has been registered to Marbles, a PR company based in Henley.

Slightly miffed by HFC's marbles mistake, the PR company is refusing to redirect accidental visitors to the correct site. Instead it asks them to send an e-mail, which surfers are told will be sent to the "Hardly Fair Chaps campaign". Neither the credit card, nor HFC, nor the correct website - at the oddly named www.getmarbles.co.uk - are mentioned.

"We've had a lot from people looking for the credit card," said Jan Stannard, co-founder of the PR company Marbles. "We don't tell them where to go because it would seem then that we had done some sort of deal."

HFC admitted yesterday that by the time anyone at the bank or the designers, Wolf Olins, thought to check on whether their new "marbles" brand had been registered, they were too far through the development process to change tack. And when HFC approached Marbles, it was told that the website was "not for sale" - and that the company was thinking of suing for infringing its design, which involves a glass marble.

Ms Stannard is still hopeful of a settlement: "Everything has its price, doesn't it?" But, she points out, "If any client of ours had said, 'We're going to have an Internet brand,' and found it taken, we would have suggested another name."

HFC insisted that it had always planned to use the sites "getmarbles" and "mymarbles" respectively for people registering and using the new card, which can be applied for and managed on-line.

In fact it has also registered the more universal names www.marbles.com, www.getmarbles.com and www.mymarbles.com. But all those came too late for the marketing department and television advertisements - which already had the UK brand on them.

The situation differs from previous cases in which individuals acted as "domain bandits", registering potentially valuable domain names - such as www.marksandspencer.co.uk - and demanding thousands of pounds from companies thatwanted to move on to the Net. A British court ruled two years ago that that was illegal.

But with Marbles and marbles, both parties could claim to have a right to the name - in which case the first claimant wins.

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