Conflict Diamonds

Two carmakers go head to head over a bright, shiny object. 

Image: Wkipedia

Diamonds are Forever, or so Ian Fleming told us in 1956. It’s not the view of Munich Regional Court No.1, which found in favour of Renault’s challenge to Chinese-owned Borgward AG’s use of a rhombus-shaped badge firmly in the tradition of their 59 years defunct Bremen-based predecessor company.

As if Borgward AG’s present woes were not great enough, the Bremen newspaper Weser-Kurier reported on 9 May 2020 that Groupe Renault have won an injunction against Borgward AG over the use of their diamond badge design.

The terms of the judgement are swingeing:

  • Payment of financial damages, the sum yet to be set.
  • Requirement for Borgward to provide details of where, and to what extent it has used the diamond badge.
  • An order to stop using the logo in its present form immediately on cars and all promotional material.
  • Cars already delivered are no longer permitted to display the diamond logo, and existing advertising material which feature it must be destroyed.
  • If the company does not comply with the order, the managing director may face a fine of up to €250,000 or two years in prison.

Borgward AG, unsurprisingly, intend to oppose the order, according to a company representative in China contacted by the Weser-Kurier.

The Bremen newspaper provides an insightful history lesson from Marion Kayser, the redoubtable chairwoman of the Borgward Club Bremen.

Image: group.renault.com

“The difference between the two diamonds is clear to the club. According to their information, the rhombus was introduced in the 1930s when Borgward opened production in Sebaldsbrück. Renault has been using its diamond since 1925. The strict lines and the form were based on Cubism and take up the spirit of the 1920s.

At Borgward in the 1950s, they considered changing the logo or at least modernising it, says Kayser. This was due to an initiative by advertising manager Heinz Thomass. One of the reasons, says Kayser, was that Thomass considered that the Borgward rhombus and the Renault diamond were too similar.”

It does seem to be a petty and mean-spirited action on the part of Renault, considering that the real Borgward has a historic precedent going back to the many years when the two diamond-badged carmakers co-existed, unconcerned at the similarity of their brand signifiers.

I would hate to think the move was inspired by spite at Renault’s woeful sales in China -18,281 in 2019, down 63% from the preceding year. Borgward managed a best-ever 45,324, albeit a little short of their 2016 ambition, which – I had to remind myself – was an annual output of 800,000 “affordable premium” cars of various types in 2020.  At least they  will have an excuse for the shortfall.

I can’t help but note that the present Renault logo isn’t even a diamond – it’s an irregular hexagon, and has been since 1972.

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Until recent times, it’s never been particularly prominent – just a badge, often quite apologetically small. It’s only relatively recently that it has grown into something almost as visually dominant as an Alfa scudetto, or the BMW ‘kidneys’. Perhaps neue Borgward should bring a counter-claim citing the huge rhombi on their ’50s cars and trucks:

36 thoughts on “Conflict Diamonds”

  1. Good morning Robertas. I have to say I’m amazed by this judgement. The two current logos could never be confused. As you point out, they are differently shaped and one has ‘Borgward’ writ large across it. They co-existed when they were both similar, so Renault’s legal action just seems spiteful now. One aspect of the judgement seems particularly onerous:

    “Cars already delivered are no longer permitted to display the diamond logo.”

    That would entail a recall to remove the badges and, presumably, replace it with something to fill the hole. What a waste of time and money.

    I wonder if poor old Borgward isn’t just the fall guy being punished for the very many more serious copyright infringements committed by Chinese automakers in the past? In any event, I would guess that this unreasonable judgement will be overturned on appeal.

  2. Renault already tried in 2019 an attack to Borgward as European mark, failing it, case n. 000030643 decided on 26/8/19 of EUIPO case law.
    Since the present process is in Germany I suppose that after the European failure they tried to attack the German priority of the European mark.
    I only found this Weser-Kurier article about this Munich thing and the explanation of the spokesperson of the Court is really very weak, “the judges found that they are too similar and the public could be deceived”, i.e. no real reasons given.
    It appears evident, also to people not particularly skilled in marks, that the two symbols are quite different, as rightly pointed out by Robertas, at least in being the Renault mark fairly hexagonal and not rhomboidal, and in the presence of an internal partition in the Borgward mark, absent in Renault, and of the name in the middle, again absent in Renault, so that no average person would be fooled into thinking they are the same.
    Any patent attorney in his juice should not have any problems in solving this before the “zweite Instanz” of the Munich tribunal; if not the BGH in Karlsruhe will hopefully put things straight.

    1. anastasio – Thanks for the mention of the previous European judgement – I wasn’t aware of that one.

      Renault’s ‘win’ is a hollow victory given Borgward AG’s European sales performance: 19 BX7s registered between July-October 2018, and 13 BX5s registered in August and September of the same year.

      Again according to the Weser-Kurier: “Since the market entry in June 2018, a three figure number of cars have been sold throughout Europe. Originally the goal should have been in the four-figure range. What happened to the vehicles already delivered was not yet finally clarified. Apparently, there are considerations that the Luxembourg general importer should continue to take care of the service. In addition, Borgward is said to have offered to buy back the vehicles from its customers.”

  3. This is not testable by law but by some consumer research. In advance, I´d say under 10% of customers would actively mistake one for the other. That is, if shown the two logos side by side very few people would agree they were the same brand. The form of the question matters. Are they similar? Yes, in a trivial sense like I am similar to Boris Becker (two arms, two legs, about the same age, same hair colour). But would people mix us up – no, not at all. We are also different in important ways. What is similarity? Does it allow simultaneous differerence? Yes. If not, we use the word “the same”. The two badges are not the same.
    If you ask people who don´t know much about cars “what is this logo” those shown a Borgward badge would probably be confused because the answer is stupidly obvious. “Er, it´s a firm called Borgward, why are you asking me this?” I can´t see any chance of people admiring a Renault and heading to a Borgward showroom.
    Renault´s might be more stringent and assume that to allow something vaguely like their logo is a slippery slope.
    I would bet ten euros they will lose the claim.

    1. Good morning Richard. So you look like Boris Becker, do you? In my younger, beardless days, I occasionally got approached by tennis fans who thought I was Andre Agassi. It’s a shame I was, and remain, so hopeless at tennis!

    2. Yes, or I did around the late 80s. At the height of Becker´s tennis fame I would be approached by people who would tell me how much I looked like the tennis player. In the cold light of day, I didn´t much at all. It was just the hair colour I think. To confuse matters, there was a time when I was also said to resemble Woody Allen. When I was in university people kept mixing me up with someone who didn´t resemble me at all. People can be very bad a visual analysis. Have you ever had to stand in silence when someone likens car A to car B when car B is nothing at all like car A? “Oh, that, that looks a Volvo”, pointing at a Ford or some entirely unVolvoid vehicle.

    3. My partner uses “It’s just like a Nissan.” as a catch-all dismissive term for any car he doesn’t like, irrespective of whether or not it looks like one. I think it’s a subliminal reference to tatty 1990’s mini-cabs!

    4. Oh Renault and their logos… They got themselves into similar trouble in the early ‘70s, when they launched their so-called Kent-logo. It first appeared on the 15/17 in 1971, and a bit later on the 1972 R5. Tobacco brand Kent had an almost similar logo (albeit rotated) and filed a lawsuit. They won and the Kent-logo was replaced by the Vasalery one somewhere in ‘72. Most cars were called back for a logo swap, but some survived with the forbidden logo. Renault subsequently erased the episode from their history; it’s nearly impossible to find any information about it. Fascinating stuff…

    5. Thanks for this Maurice. Frankly, one would imagine that Renault have slightly bigger fish to fry right now than this unseemly row. It smacks of insecurity and given Renault’s current privations (and likely forthcoming shrinkage), they are probably right to be insecure. Nevertheless, it speaks poorly of them.

    6. Hello Maurice,

      Good heavens – I’d forgotten that one. I liked that logo.

      Logo Renault KENT r5

    7. I’d been wondering what the story behind that short-term logo might have been – many thanks for the explanation, Maurice!

  4. This is one of the consequences of absurd EU trade mark patent regulations. Once you own a registered trade mark you have to fiercely defend it no matter how stupid the case looks at first sight because otherwise you would be seen as not having the necessary interest in your trade mark and everybody would be allowed to infringe on it.
    That’s why oldtimer spare parts specialists are no longer allowed to use the logos of the brands they serve, which is particularly silly because it was them who kept the old names alive over decades and that’s why BP has one single fuel station in Germany so they can sue everybody misusing the BP brand.

    1. So tell us: where is that single BP station? Driving to it, and filling up there, just because it exists, sounds like it could make a drive story…

    2. It´s somewhere southwest of Leipzig and there is one near Koeln. There might be one on the German/Austrian border too.
      There is a workaround to the use of logos for Oldtimer garages. They just call the old logos “decorations” and hang them near their own sign.
      As matter of interest, are there many examples of car companies going after small enterprises servicing old cars? In my area the Hyundai specialist still has Hyundai in big Hyundia script outside his door.

    3. Volkswagen came down on oldtimer specialists very hard a couple of years ago.

    4. Here is a more recent case of BMW versus a small garage. BMW won.
      The argument rests on the distinction between “nominative” fair use of a logo and in trying to pass yourself off as an official dealer. I am not instinctively on the side of big corporations. I can´t see how a counter argument that allows unrestricted use of logos would work and there would be a lot more losers, I think.
      It´s one of those legal cases where one starts sure of one´s opinion and ends up on the reverse side having considered it.

    5. Another point, EU trade regulations are formed by an agreement of the member states. British lawyers were until Brexit significant contributors to EU processes and were widely respected. Not all EU law is ideal – it´s a compromise – much as national law is a compromise. While I don´t like all national law and don´t like all EU law, overall these processes produce fairly reasonable outcomes. I don´t see much alternative to national and EU-level mechanisms for producing rules and standards.

  5. there must be a curse on the Borgward name.
    I remember their presence in Melbourne in the 50s, my boy
    brain told me the Isabella seemed to have a good reputation.
    a notable one was often parked outside police headquarters
    in the city. it was reputed to have a Ford V8 under the bonnet,
    which explained why the steering column had been extended
    and the driver’s seat was hard against the back seat.
    I like this game Richard and Daniel have invented:
    “which tennis player would you like to be mistaken for?”

    1. Borgward have used other logos in the past – as below, for example, which I think is rather nice. Perhaps they could take this as an opportunity for a freshen-up of corporate imagery?

      Borgward Isabella '59, emblem, part view

    2. Nice idea, Charles, but then they might find themselves in trouble with Roewe:

      I really like the current Borgward logo. It’s a shame the cars aren’t as distinctive.

  6. I’m in agreement with the sentiments here. Seems pretty farfetched to confuse the two logos. One detail about the first Borgward Isabella I’ve seen has always intrigued me: The quarter window doesn’t rotate like quarter windows used to, but there’s a second window crank to wind it down. I don’t think all Isabellas had that feature though.

    1. Charles, the steering wheel boss logo is the arms of the Free and Hanseatic City of Bremen. The practice of expressing mutual civic pride is quite widespread even now; Volkswagen (wolf and castle), Morris (the fording ox), Porsche (the stud farm stallion), Alfa Romeo (The Viper of Milan snacking on a Turk). There are several other I can think of.

      Freerk, Every Isabella of my experience (coupes excepted obviously) has the crank-operated front quarterlight. They don’t wind down, but pivot in the normal manner. The benefit is that the opening angle can be set very precisely and the quarter light stays in place. Combined with opening the vertically hinged rear side windows a little, a draught-free through-flow effect is easily achieved.

    2. Thanks, Robertas. I must say I’m a big fan of those sorts of crests. A large number of companies use them, as you say, and some are very complicated and colourful. A lovely way of telling a short story with an icon.

  7. Robertas, what an intriguing saga, and that legal judgement does seem to offer great scope for debate . Also, forgive this off-topic query ….. Your interesting Jowett Javelin (Part 1) article, of a while ago, I don’t think Part 2 has appeared yet ? Can we still live in hope ?

    1. RichardF: Despite my considerable editorial powers, (which I wield with great responsibility I might add), I cannot account for Robertas’ mercurial actions as regards his serialised pieces. They arrive when the muse strikes.

      What I can assure you however is that there is some Jowett-related material in the pending tray, which will materialise in the near future.

    2. You’re not the only reader waiting patiently for part 2 to appear. The results of Mr Doyle’s assurance are anticipated with avidity…..

    1. Ok that worked, strangely my comment on Richard’s articles with the tatty old bangers pictures doesn’t go through and I got an response I’ve never had before: “comment could not be posted”

  8. About the coat of arms on the Borgward steeringwheel: the key is different, Bremens key is in silver, Borgward is in gold. The C.F.W. Borgward IG user a simular coat, instead of the key there is the Borgward rhombussign.

  9. According to this article on Zurich-based newspaper Blick’s website today, the trademark dispute is is the least of Chinese Borgward’s worries:

    https://www.blick.ch/auto/news_n_trends/ein-maerchen-ohne-happy-end-borgward-wieder-am-ende-id16052195.html

    Summary:

    Major quality problems from the start: Engines, air conditioning and multimedia.

    Chinese parent company disregards advice and quality concerns from so-called “Corporate HQ” in Stuttgart. “Instead of relying on advanced hybrid and electric technology for the drives as suggested by us, the Chinese preferred to invest their money in the further development of diesel engines in order to emulate the German competition. The first e-prototypes were already ready.” (Tom Anliker)

    Two thirds of Borgward AG sold to coffee shop entrepreneur Lu Zhengyao at the beginning of 2019, to be integrated into his Ucar Internet platform for car sales, travel and chauffeur services.

    No resolution of quality problems, Stuttgart HQ is closed and all staff dismissed. China sales fail to recover post Covid-19. Lu Zhengyao is accused of fraud with his coffee shop empire LuckinCoffee, whereupon the share price of the business collapses by 95 percent.

    Ucar’s share in Borgward AG was sold back to BAIC by Mr. LuckinCoffee last week.

    The Blick article states “Nevertheless, the chances are zero that the ailing brand will survive. Borgward dies for the second time. This time probably forever.”

    1. Hi Robertas. Thanks for the update on Borgward. That would explain the marque’s disappearance from European sales charts in 2019, which we reported on in a recent DTW piece on the lack of impact of Chinese marques in Europe. Not much of a loss, since new Borgward always had a whiff of “fake Rolex” about it.

  10. Hi Robertas,

    I think Borgward should be allowed to use this emblem since it has done so since the 20’s (albeit with an interruption) but at the same time I can see why Renault was worried: I think many people, from far away, could think that a Borgward is a Renault when seeing the rough outline of a ‘diamond’. Perhaps Renault was thinking more about the confusion in China where the Renault logo is not as well known as in Europe ?

  11. I don’t think all the badges in China will save Ghoul Borgward now.

    BAIC Foton realised, despite heavy investment, that making premium SUVs was a different game from truck, bus, and van production – they couldn’t become Daimler overnight.

    They put up a ‘for sale’ sign when production had hardly started. There’s been a lack of perseverance and realism, particularly in their European exploits.

    SAIC’s MG Motor have shown how it can work; after years as a laughing-stock, they have found their place in the UK and are managing sales of over 2000 in a good month, sometimes outselling Fiat and Suzuki.

    The right Chinese company could have done something with the Borgward nameplate, but the world has changed, and revived brands are as passé now as the retro cars of the 1990s (except for viewers in the USA…).

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