Louis Vuitton is making headlines after revealing that it is changing its packaging. After decades of what Lady Gaga somewhat recently referred to as “Louis Vuitton brown,” the 162-year old Paris-based design house has given its product packaging a saffron-hued makeover, complete with a hint of cobalt blue by way of its ribbons and bag handles. In addition to causing quite the internet discussion – some love the new look, others are far less enthralled – the new packaging presents an interesting challenge for the world’s largest luxury brand: Starting from (relative) scratch and building secondary meaning in the minds of consumers around its new look.
"We don't want the packaging to be fashionable. It's supposed to have quite a long life cycle," said chairman and CEO Michael Burke in an interview with WWD. "In most cases, brand colors play off of black and white. We wanted to be different."
As the legally-minded among us known, both colors and product packaging is protectable by law under the umbrella of trade dress, a sect of trademark law that provides protection for the overall image of a product that indicates or identifies the source of the product and distinguishes it from those of others. Such legal protection typically includes the design or shape/configuration of a product, and product labeling and packaging, and may also consist of elements, such as color. We witnessed the latter take center stage in the widely publicized Christian Louboutin v. Yves Saint Laurent case several years ago.
Paired with the brown background of the design house’s Toile Monogram, the brown packaging has become synonymous with Louis Vuitton. In trademark terms, this means that the hue has secondary meaning in the minds of consumers – aka consumers associate the brown packaging with Louis Vuitton, that the color serves as an indicator of source. This is the result of many decades of usage by the brand. And while the design house has made use of its “safran imperial” yellow for quite some time now by way of its bags’ lining, it certainly is not as intimately associated with the brand as its arguably iconic brown.
What does this mean legally? Well, Louis Vuitton has some work do to. As of now, the brand likely does not hold any significant rights in the color – as color marks are never inherently distinctive. This means that in order for Louis Vuitton to assert rights in the color and the colored packaging as trade dress – and prevent other brands from utilizing it on their own packaging – it must establish secondary meaning in the minds of consumers, which is no easy or quick feat. Namely, it must begin using and marketing the new yellow hue to consumers. Such efforts are slated to begin this weekend, when the brand debuts the new bags.
A final note: The new Louis Vuitton packaging color is arguably a bit too close to Veuve Clicquot's saffron hue but luckily, both companies are owned by LVMH and so, there will not be any legal fall out. The similarity may, however, make it a bit more difficult for Louis Vuitton to make its new branding all its own. Thoughts?