Western Cape Business News

Send  Share  RSS  Twitter  04 Feb 2010

VENTURES: You Can't Be A Virgin All Your Life


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As a small company, what do you do when one of the world’s most influential business conglomerates takes you on and opposes your application to register a trademark that includes only one word in common with theirs? You make sure you win. That’s just what Cape Town entrepreneur Dimitri Philippou did.

Philippou’s company, Bodtrade 54, established two years ago, would not accept that Richard Branson and his Virgin group of companies were the only rightful users of the word ‘virgin’ as a trademark in relation to restaurants, communications, bars and the like. This is after the business giant took the small Cape Town based company to task at the United Kingdom’s Intellectual Property Office (IPO)…and lost.

Philippou’s company applied to register as a trademark the phrase ‘You can’t be a virgin all your life it’s time...’ The trademark was vigorously opposed by Virgin Enterprises but the United Kingdom’s Intellectual Property Office agreed with Bodtrade 54’s argument. It has granted the company the right to include the magic words ‘registered trademark’ ® along with the phrase.

The ruling was made in July 2009 by the IPO’s Allan James who gave Virgin Enterprises until the end of August 2009 to appeal. The business giant did not. And, Bodtrade 54’s trademark was registered on 25 September 2009. James furthermore ordered Virgin Enterprises to pay UK £1500 towards Bodtrade 54's legal costs which, according to Philippou, has been settled.

In short, this published ruling opens the way for other companies to register trademarks that include the word ‘virgin’, even regarding those products or services which Virgin Enterprises provides. Bodtrade 54 has subsequent to this ruling, filed for further trademarks in UK covering: Education and Entertainment, Medical and Beverages on 18 January 2009.

Philippou believes there is considerable power in the phrase for marketing purposes.  “After all, you can’t be a virgin all your life it’s time…for Bodtrade Hotels or Bodtrade Telecoms – and you can add words and replace Bodtrade with any name you like. And, therein lies its power,” says Philippou. 

It is the first time in the history of Virgin Enterprises Limited that a company other than a company of the Virgin Enterprises group of companies has secured a trademark registration including the word ‘virgin’ apart from some marks registered for olive oil in which the word is descriptive.

For those old enough to remember, it was in 1970 that a young and aspiring Branson thought his new business in the years of free love would accept the conception of a company called Virgin. Virgin Enterprises Limited objected to Bodtrade 54's application for the phrase - in respect of telecommunications and catering services - on the basis it had a ‘huge' reputation in its trade mark VIRGIN for a wide range of goods and services, including telecommunications and catering services.

Virgin Enterprises claimed that if the trade mark application were granted, it would take an unfair advantage of, or would be detrimental to, the VIRGIN trademark.

Virgin Enterprises also suggested that the public would be confused into thinking Bodtrade 54 was in some way associated with Virgin as ‘the public has an expectation that [Virgin]...will introduce new and different products and services on a regular basis', and accordingly suggested that the public would assume a connection to Virgin.

According to Philippou, he didn’t think it was right that Sir Richard should lay claim to the word. “Virgin does not, and should not, have exclusive use of the word ‘virgin', and that in any event ‘virgin' was only one word in a phrase using 10 words,” he states emphatically.

Bodtrade 54, owned and managed by Philippou, is a small but growing concern which leverages the power of branding to take FMCG products to the hotel, restaurant and café trade. It is also active in the telecoms, pharmaceutical and medical, education and entertainment environments.

When Philippou found his branding and marketing initiatives being subjected to attempts to be curtailed by what he believed was an unreasonable presumed monopoly on the word ‘virgin’ by an alleged free marketer, he didn’t take it lying down. “We didn’t think it fair that a single word, which is also part of the generally used English language, should be the exclusive preserve of a single organisation,” says Philippou.

It’s a remarkable David and Goliath story of how the upstart from the tip of Africa has upstaged the marketing giant of Virgin Enterprises Limited.

As the world’s attention turns to South Africa on the eve of the 2010 Football World Cup, this South African has already seen significant victory. 

Says Philippou: “This is the first time that Virgin Enterprises Limited has ever lost its hold on the word in a trademark scenario. It’s a powerful boost for our company as we can use this registered trademark in the market place to protect and market our brand in relation to some of our services.”

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