Virgin Group wages trademark war against olive oil

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Over the last four decades, Richard Branson has turned music retailer Virgin Records into a global conglomerate that includes Virgin airlines, Virgin Galactic, Virgin Mobile and dozens of enterprises under that brand. Now anyone else trying to get into the virgin business had better watch out for Branson’s trademark lawyers.

Since 2012, Branson’s company has opposed or delayed at least 64 trademark registrations in the U.S., taking on craft breweries, romance novelists, and a host of companies and nonprofits whose products and services don’t obviously overlap with those of the multinational giant.

Virgin Group often stops short of suing other virgins, preferring to fight its battles at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. It’s tried to prevent companies from trademarking phrases that include the word “virgin” or logos consisting of the letter V. Some of these cases can veer toward the absurd. In 2013, Virgin sought to block a Chilean company called Valle Grande that was seeking a U.S. trademark for a phrase that included the words “extra virgin olive oil” because Valle Grande was actually selling vinegar.

Extra virgin olive oil and vinegar are two separate, distinct types of substances,” Virgin’s lawyers wrote in a filing. (They had a valid point, and Valle Grande ultimately dropped its application; still, it’s not every day that a multibillion dollar company assigns lawyers the task of ensuring that consumers don’t buy the wrong ingredients for salad dressing.)

Win or lose, there are good explanations for Virgin Group’s vigilance. Branson’s entrepreneurial aspirations are so wide-ranging — Virgin Galactic is working on commercial space travel — and there are probably few markets the company wouldn’t at least consider entering in the future. The brand is “Virgin Group’s single biggest asset,” Fox says.

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