Red Cross PR — How They are Right, Even When They Might Be Wrong

Mary Schmidt -Business Developer & Branding Troubleshooter — posted a PR and Branding dilemma doozy yesterday, Branding Stupidity: J&J suing the Red Cross. Its about the use of the Red Cross’s iconic logo which is of course is a RED CROSS and the little known fact (until now) that Johnson & Johnson actually owns the rights to the symbol for all commercial use.

This from the Red Cross Press Release:

Specifically, J&J demands that the Red Cross:

  • Stop the Red Cross and its licensing partners from using the Red Cross emblem permanently on first aid, preparedness and related products sold to the public;
  • Surrender to J&J for destruction the Red Cross’ inventory of accused products;
  • Hand over to J&J all Red Cross proceeds from the sale of these products with interest; and
  • Pay punitive damages to J&J along with attorney fees related to its legal action against the Red Cross.

And this from the Johnson & Johnson Press Release:

Johnson & Johnson began using the Red Cross design and “Red Cross” word trademarks in 1887, predating the formation of the American Red Cross. The Company has had exclusive rights to use the Red Cross trademark on commercial products within its longstanding product categories for over 100 years. Since its creation, the American Red Cross has at all times possessed only the rights to use the Red Cross trademark in connection with its non-profit relief services.

This is where branding and PR go head to head with legal stuck in the middle.

From a branding standpoint: If you own the rights to a trademark and you want to use the trademark, you’ve got to protect your rights. If Johnson & Johnson has the rights to the Red Cross symbol for “for profit use”, evidently has used the cross on it’s packaging. Now that the Red Cross is licensing those rights to other companies who are competing directly with J&J, where does that leave J&J?

We branding people know that you must protect your brand unless you want it to become a generic phrase/symbol. Has the word & symbol for Red Cross become synonymous for a generic? If so, what’s the generic? — “help”? “blood”? “disaster relief”? “swimming/CPR/first aid lessons” ? “volunteering” ?

If the red cross is being used on packaging “for baby mitts, nail clippers, combs, toothbrushes and humidifiers” and these products directly compete with the legal owner of the red cross for commercial products, J&J has no choice but to stop the use of the red cross on competitive products. Or does it?

Before deciding to sue, J&J must have had to decide which is worse, the negative publicity or giving up rights to a logo that is synonymous with doing good. I hope they thought long and hard. Maybe even did some “what if” focus group testing.

Who has built that logo/symbol into the meaning it has? Johnson & Johnson? I must have 50 J&J products in my house right now (my husband is a paramedic), but I would be hard pressed to associate the red cross on any of the packaging with J&J.

From a PR standpoint: Multi national for-profit pharma company suing the international do-good non-profit whose name & logo are synonymous? Hmmm. It doesn’t get much more Goliath vs David, “evil corporate” vs “do-good non-profit” than that.

But the Red Cross is not a David… it’s a huge organization. And where does the non-profit 501-c3 status come in to this? If a consumer purchases a product with the red cross symbol on it, wouldn’t they “assume” that they are helping the Red Cross somehow with their blood services, disaster relief or training? The Red Cross has had it’s PR problems in the past too. They don’t want headlines screaming, Red Cross Breaks the Law, right?

In my opinion the PR people at the Red Cross have a huge upper hand. J&J may win in the courts, but will lose terribly in the media and public sentiment.

Notice the use of negative words attributed to J&J in Red Cross release: “Demand, Stop, Surrender, Hand over, Pay punitive.” Very strong language immediately followed up by an indignant reminder of the big bad corporate giant vs the do-gooder situation in the use of the quote by the new president of the Red Cross who has been in charge for 2 months, 2 weeks. Great PR. Emotional. Easy to understand. Visual, with great word imagery.

J&J’s press release is analytical, not emotional. The only emotion sounds like they are whining. They might be right, but if feels more like a sibling complaining the sister got the bigger piece of cake. Their philanthropic efforts are huge, but access to their beautifully done 2006 contributions annual report/ online video of all their caring is awkward and difficult to access and read. It’s hard to feel anything, except they spent too much time, effort and money on this to tell everyone how great they are. They may be great at branding, but their PR efforts are lacking. I think they are too removed from the “real world”, too slick.

Full Disclosure:
Professionally, the American Red Cross is a client of my company Marketing Resources & Results, Inc.
Personally: I’m an active blood donor (O negative) who tries to donate every 56 days and;

Philanthropically (is that a word?): The Red Cross is one of my favorite charities.

And about J&J: well, I think that their Baby Magic has the best baby smell of any baby product out there, but my babies are 16 and 19 right now. And the stock club I was in invested in their stock back in the 90’s.

So how far do you take your legal right? When does PR override Branding? What would have been a better approach?

What about J&J giving up the commercial rights to the red cross and “donating” the symbol to the Red Cross, making a huge deal about it and trying to get that value back from taxes as a giant corporate donation?

How do you measure ill-will? Bad headlines plus column inches times circulation? Seconds of airtime times viewship? Survey’s of the public about who’s right? Does the public even care?

Creative commons Flickr photo courtesy: Vidiot

Author: Chris Brown

Business owner operating a marketing consulting firm. Online Publisher. Keynote Speaker.

3 thoughts on “Red Cross PR — How They are Right, Even When They Might Be Wrong”

  1. Historically, and coming from a family of Marines, I have been a fan and supporter of the Red Cross, but I really sympathize with J&J here.

    Although the initial benefactors and recipients of J&J’s generosity are long gone, they must feel a bit like they were stabbed in the back, especially since they’re a big donor to TRC.

    If they’re really not making that much money from the sale of these products, why not partner with a company like J&J for a venture like this? It makes sense when you look at it from distribution, publicity, financial (and thus charitable) and legal standpoints.

    I like Seth Godin’s take on it. TRC should have pulled the product immediately upon request.

    But then, my view of TRC’s behavior would be completely different if I learned that J&J’s first course of action was legal action and threats. I haven’t read the back story, however, that lead up to this.

  2. Excellent analysis! I”ve seen found this from the Canadian Red Cross:

    “Despite the efforts of the Red Cross Movement over many years, the emblem has been improperly displayed by individuals, businesses and organizations in a vast range of uses from first aid suppliers through to children’s toys. Unfortunately, many people mistakenly assume that the Red Cross is in the “public domain” and can be used by anyone.”

    I could be more sympathetic to J&J if someone was using their actual logo, but this is an “emblem.”

    And, what about that cross of St. George? hmmm…

  3. There are a couple of different facts that need to be considered:

    1) he Red Cross emblem is a reversed Swiss flag and was adopted in 1863, which makes It difficult to understand why anybody could have trademarked the Red Cross emblem in good faith after 1863.

    2) There are clear guidelines for the use of the emblem:

    3) The American Red Cross is a national Red Cross society and should not be confused with the international Red Cross. Therefore every mention of the American Red Cross should really refer to the American Red Cross and not the Red Cross as such. The two should not be used interchangeably.

    The establishment and international use of the emblem clearly predates J&J’s first use, which according to J&J was in 1887.

Comments are closed.