Canada's Tempest in a Juice Glass

For most big brands there often comes a moment in which they have to make an uncomfortable choice: should they sue a much smaller company that happens to have infringed on their trademark (and potentially look like a bunch of evil corporate S.O.B.’s) or should they let it slide (and hope consumers can figure it out on their own)?

This was always a tough choice, but now the rise of social media is changing the calculus by letting the little companies fight back -- sometimes with devastating effect. Just take a look at our neighbors to the north, where Lassonde Industries Inc., based in Rougement Quebec, has felt the polite wrath of Canadian consumers over its perceived bullying of a small business.

Back in 2005, Lassonde, which produces Oasis brand juices, sued one Deborah Kudzman, who owns a shop and boutique soap-maker called Olivia’s Oasis, for trademark infringement. After losing the claim in Quebec Superior Court in 2010, Lassonde was required to pay Kudzman $100,000 to cover legal costs plus a further $25,000 in punitive damages. But then last week the award of damages was thrown out by Quebec’s Court of Appeals, meaning Kudzman might have been bankrupted by her legal fees after all.

And that’s when social media came into the picture, as Facebook and Twitter were stirred into a frenzy by a local newspaper report of the legal setback for Kudzman. From the innocuous, familiar carton sitting on the breakfast table, Oasis was suddenly transformed into a corporate villain non pareil. Customers posted hundreds of messages (900+ as of Monday) on Lassonde Oasis’ own Facebook page denouncing the brand and calling for a boycott. A popular regional TV host, Guy A. Lepage, pledged to stop buying the brand on Twitter.

Finally Lassonde, in damage-control mode, pledged to cover all of Kudzman’s legal costs, and the social media storm began to subside. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the whole affair is that it all took place in 48 hours: the newspaper story appeared on Saturday morning, the outrage built over the course of the day and into the night, and Lassonde made obeisance to the social media collective on Easter Sunday.  Of course, it’s not really over, as the mainstream media in Quebec picked the story up (again) on Monday, closing the loop and continuing the news cycle -- as well as the PR nightmare for Lassonde.

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