The Intersection of Branding, 9/11, the World Trade Centers Association, and the New York Port Authority

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September 20, 2015; The Real Deal

When creating a business or nonprofit, founders and leadership teams develop a brand, something with a unique personality that will stand out among the competition. If successful, the brand will represent an experience or a meaningful promise to stakeholders. Often, a strong and memorable brand is reflected by a logo, tagline, and mission.

Thirty years ago, the World Trade Centers Association (WTCA) purchased the “World Trade Center” trademark from the Port Authority for ten dollars – yes, just ten dollars. The Association, a 501(c)(6) business league,  generates millions of dollars every year licensing use of the World Trade Center brand.

A probe by the Attorney General did not find any criminal wrongdoing related to the trademark transfer but stated, “The Port Authority exercised lax oversight when approving the transfer and assignment of the service mark to the World Trade Centers Association in 1986 and performed virtually no due diligence.”

Last week on September 18, the WTCA filed a lawsuit in federal court in Manhattan against the Port Authority over alleged illegal logo usage on teddy bears, mugs, and glasses sold at the observatory.

According to a statement by the WCTA, “We have license agreements in place with the Port Authority and our other members regarding the use of our trademarks, but the Port Authority is in breach of those agreements and is using WTCA’s trademarks without authorization on merchandise without our consent.”

The WTCA claims that the Port Authority is in violation because it stamped “One World Observatory One World Trade Center” on souvenirs without clearing the use of the trademark with the Association.

Above all, according to the World Trade Centers Association, “[Our] primary concern in this matter is protecting the quality of the World Trade Center brand and ensuring it is used appropriately – with respect and integrity for the victims of 9/11 – on any merchandise.”

What do you think? Has the Port Authority committed trademark infringement, and is it causing damage to the World Trade Center brand?  As you answer, consider these expert perspectives on branding:

According to Philip Kotler, a brand is “a name, term, sign, symbol, or design or a combination of them, intended to identify the goods and services of one seller or group of sellers and differentiate them from those of the competitor.”  Al Reis described a brand as “a singular idea or concept that you own inside the mind of a prospect.”  David Ogilvy defined it as “the intangible sum of a product’s attributes: its name, packaging, and price, its history, its reputation, and the way it’s advertised.”  Branding expert Walter Landor said, “Products are made in the factory, but brands are created in the mind.”  And Michael Eisner, former CEO of the Walt Disney Company, added, a brand is “a living entity, and it is enriched or undermined cumulatively over time, the product of a thousand small gestures.”—Debbie Laskey