Confessions of a Scrabble brand manager

You may have heard the story by now: Mattel/Hasbro, makers of the Scrabble board game have asked Facebook to remove Scrabulous, one of Facebook’s top 10 applications with 600,000 daily active users. More here and here.

Look at what the National Scrabble Association has to say:

John D. Williams Jr., executive director of the National Scrabble Association, said the group was hopeful the companies could work out some sort of agreement. While most competitive Scrabble players do not play Scrabulous, he said the online game was a great way to introduce young people to the traditional board game.

“We’re thrilled over anything that gets people playing more Scrabble,” he said. “Our goal is to recruit them from the Internet and get them playing on a Scrabble board with a person sitting across from them.”

Gee, do you think that a group of 600,000 interested players might yield a few new recruits?

A number of bloggers are talking about how foolish this was, and the press coverage has been pretty horrendous for Mattel/Hasbro. Everyone seems to agree that there’s little question that Scrabulous is infringing on Mattel/Hasbro’s trademarks. But there’s a lot of debate about how Mattel/Hasbro could so royal screw up a situation where there are 600,000 users of something that could and does help your brand.

There seems to be an assumption that “Mattel” and/or “Hasbro” was a group of people aligned across departments acting as one hive mind. Based on my own experiences with this exact type of issue, my guess is that that’s entirely incorrect. Here’s my guess as to how this all played out….

Legal Intern: Hey boss, do you know about this Scrabulous Facebook app.

Corporate Lawyer: No, what is it?…. Facebook, I mean.Legal Intern explains Facebook.

Lawyer’s eyes glaze over. Lawyer hears “unlicensed IP”.

Corporate Lawyer: So wait, someone’s blatantly ripping off our trademark?? Intern, please draft a cease and desist using the template on the shared drive.Legal Intern submits draft to Lawyer, Lawyer emails the Scrabble brand manager.

To: Brand Manager
From: Corporate Lawyer
Subject: Violation of Scrabble trademark

Brand Manager,

I wanted to let you know that we’re about to send a cease and desist letter to Facebook and the makers of Scrabulous. In case you haven’t seen it, Scrabulous is blatantly using our trademarks without permission. If we don’t fight against this with all our legal might, then we’ll have to turn over the trademark to the public domain, we’ll never be able to use the trademark again, and we’ll all lose our jobs.

Corporate Lawyer

Brand Manager: My kids use Facebook. The bulk of our target market is older than my kids… no red flags here.

A few days later…

PR Rep: We’re starting to get some questions from bloggers about a cease and desist letter about Scrabulous. Can you fill me in?

Brand Manager: They’re using our IP to promote a free application: Scrabulous. It’s just a Facebook thing, why are you worrying about this?

PR Rep: Apparently Scrabulous has 600,000 daily users and is a top 10 Facebook application, that’s why.

Brand Manager: Wait, what? 600,000? We need to eliminate this thing so I can build my own, official version in its place! Better yet, we just need to tell those 600,000 to move to the paid version we’ve already built. My yearly bonus is based on our official application stats, not some silly free thing, after all.

PR Rep: I have to go… MSNBC just paged me for a quote.

In my own personal experience, there are several core issues at play here:

  • Brand managers are all too often caught up in traditional, large-scale methods of doing things and have a hard time seeing the value in “smaller” or “less significant” projects. Until brand teams understand and utilize the mash-up concept, they’re going to continue to struggle with how the Web is being built out.
  • Legal departments are allowed far too much power simply because nobody is willing to stand up and make them justify their positions. Far too many people believe that they’re not smart enough to discuss legal issues because they didn’t go to law school. Where legal requirements stops and business risk begins is not at all clear enough in most organizations.
  • There are not enough employees willing to risk ridicule and/or scorn by asking whether it would be more wise to partner with troublemakers than going all legal on their ass. (We see this dynamic throughout society: needle exchange programs, for instance, are dismissed out of hand without looking at the actual impact because it’s “unseemly”)
  • The business culture is driven largely by protectionism, and in this culture business people are far too concerned about the idea that “if we allow X today then there’ll be ten times X tomorrow”.

Have you noticed that so many of these stories come from big companies? Size breeds comfort, and comfort breeds fear. In an environment ruled by fear, legal teams are given free reign to set the tone. In an environment ruled by fear, brand teams are far too hesitant to try new tactics, new ways of thinking. In an environment ruled by fear, the company continues to do the “stand bys”, yet they see their results get less and less impactful every day.

UPDATE: I meant to mention originally – this exchange is far from unique to Hasbro/Mattel. I’m absolutely sure that this type of exchange happens daily around the world.


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