Brand crossover or crossing the line?

collaboration, brand partnership

If you want to go fastgo aloneIf you want to go fargo together.’ – African Proverb

Not just a great motivational quote but a pretty savvy business strategy. Brand partnerships and collaborations are a great way to win fans and influence people. As our #GFFs at Collabosaurus will tell you – two brands are better than one.

Brand collaborations can help businesses enter new markets and increase their brand awareness; when they’re done right. Good synergies, value propositions and open communication are a must for a great partnership.

On the flip side, what if it’s not a genuine collaboration at all? We’re talking when businesses pay tribute to or play off other brands. Despite any honest to goodness fangirl or fanboy intentions, this is where a business can cross over into trade mark infringement territory. Not exactly ideal brand awareness for a business.

Let’s look at a few examples of businesses crossing the line and how you can avoid stepping on someone else’s toes.


Gelato Messina recently held an all-day breakkie event. A couple of menu items caught the attention of McDonald’s – a sausage and egg ‘McMessina’ and bacon and egg ‘McMessina’. McDonald’s wasn’t exactly McHappy with the names of these breakfast offerings and made this known with a cease and desist letter to Messina.

The online outrage hurled at McDonald’s was really misguided. Macca’s likely, and rightly, took issue with the unauthorised use of their ‘Mc’ trade mark. There was a serious risk for consumers to think that the event was a genuine collaboration between McDonald’s and Messina because of the reputation Macca’s has with its ‘Mc’ prefix and brand.

Messina posted an open letter to Macca’s on its social media, explaining that the idea was to pay ‘tribute to the much loved “Egg McMuffin”.’ Word to the wise, if you’re going with the whole ‘it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission’ strategy, maybe avoid insulting the other brand by suggesting you can improve their product?

Ironically, if the situation were reversed and Macca’s released an unauthorised McMessina product, it’s probably unlikely that Messina would be so forgiving.

(For those playing at home living in fear that Macca’s will send you a cease and desist demanding you change your Mc-surname, rest assured it’s unlikely.)


Big kids and little kids alike – who doesn’t love Lego? The exception being that no one loves barefoot encounters with Lego. But the point is, Lego is one of the biggest toy brands in the world. In recent years, the company has diversified significantly ‘beyond the brick’. Diving into show business (the Lego movie raked in US$469 million globally), gaming and expanding their user experience with Legoland theme parks and the newly opened Lego House; the company’s brand value is worth a cool US$7.8B.

Earlier this year, a Lego themed pop-up bar was promoted around Australia under the name ‘Legobar’. The bar is intended to be the ‘ultimate nostalgia trip’ allowing fans of the humble brick to kickback with a drink or two while getting their creative build on.

The problem: the bar didn’t seek approval from Lego to use their brand name. Lego, like most savvy brand owners, keeps a tight rein on the use of their trade marks and products for commercial purposes. For this reason, the company is careful in who it opts to partner with.

Cue the cease and desist letter and a rebrand for the bar to The Brick Bar. And the inclusion of a website disclaimer: We are not associated with Lego.

The Upside Down

Last year a Stranger Things themed pop-up bar called the ‘The Upside Down’ launched in Chicago. The bar went all out in its homage to the show with brilliant details including syrup-flavoured ‘Eleven’s Eggos’ cocktails, a lit-up alphabet wall, blinking Christmas lights, the Byers’ family couch, even the entrance to the bar was fashioned to look like customers were entering the Hawkins Department of Energy.

While Netflix appreciated the clear fan love of the show, it hadn’t authorised the pop-up or use of the show’s IP. But rather than go ‘full Dr. Brenner’ on the bar’s owners, Netflix sent a great cease and desist letter that simply requested that the bar didn’t operate beyond its 6-week run period and also for permission to be sought for any similar events in future. We tip our hat to anyone who includes reference to the ‘demogorgon’ in a cease and desist letter.


The year is 1948 and In-N-Out Burger was open for business – California’s first drive-thru hamburger stand. In 2018, In-N-Out remains a private, family owned and run company with 335 locations across 6 US States and annual sales topping US$575 million. In-N-Out pop-up events around the world generates big PR and even bigger line ups of fans for the cult burger phenomenon. Perhaps it’s this cult following that makes In-N-Out the subject of various ‘tributes’.

US brewery, Seven Stills Brewery and Distillery, attempted to launch a barrel aged neopolitan milkshake beer dubbed ‘In-N-Stout’. There was no mistaking where the inspo for the name and packaging came from, with the beer can making use of In-N-Out’s logo, palm tree theme and colours. The beer can was all dressed up with nowhere to go as In-N-Out issued a cease and desist letter the day after the brewery announced the product on Instagram.

But in a literary masterstroke, In-N-Out avoided the unnecessary heavy-handed legalese and instead issued a pun filled letter advising the brewery of their concerns:

‘We hope you appreciate, however, that we are attempting to clearly distill our rights by crafting an amicable approach with you, rather than barrel through this.’

In-N-Out’s approach clearly tickled Seven Stills’ funny bone because they renamed and repackaged the beer as Neopolitan stout. Seven Stills co-founder Tim Obert stated he appreciated In-N-Out also ‘started out as the little guy, so they’re just trying to protect what they built’. A brewtiful bit of PR for all involved.

Down N’ Out

By comparison, it’s no laughing matter for In-N-Out here in Australia. Aussie burger company Hashtag Burgers Pty Ltd launched a couple of burger joints called ‘Down N’ Out’, which it promotes as ‘American style burgers, done right.’ In-N-Out hasn’t taken kindly to Down N’ Out, which it claims is mimicking and infringing it’s brand. The US burger brand is currently pursuing legal action against the Aussie start up. The burger bun fight in Court between the two companies has been set down for 11 June 2019.

The take home lesson and tip for brand owners looking to pay homage to a favourite brand or business: ask first.

Connect with the brand and seek their permission before launching any love letter product or service, especially if you’re looking to make use of or play off their trade marks and IP.

It’s important that both parties are on the same page with the intention of the collaboration or partnership. Collaboration after all is a co-operative effort and opportunity for businesses to create, brand and promote something together, to the benefit of both businesses. An unwanted association or PR disaster is something that few businesses can weather well in this day and age of viral online boycotts and backlash (Anthropologie anyone?)

If nothing else, just think if another brand decided to use your IP without your consent, it would probably feel more opportunistic than a tribute or genuine collaborative opportunity no?

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