Walmart and Yeezy, Kanye West’s fashion label, are enmeshed in a legal battle over a logo.
In 2007, Walmart debuted its now-famous ubiquitous logo that looks like a spark, with six lines emanating outward like rays. Four months ago, Yeezy filed a trademark for a logo with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) that also looks spark-like, this time with eight dotted lines emanating outward. Yeezy is not yet using this logo on products, since it is waiting on approval from the PTO. But this week, Walmart filed a “notice of opposition” with the PTO, which begins formal legal proceedings; it claims that the logos are so similar that it is likely to cause confusion in the market.
On the surface, the battle seems odd, given that the two brands could not be more different. Walmart is a mass-market retailer that has been around for more than half a century. Yeezy, on the other hand, is a luxury fashion brand founded by one of the country’s biggest celebrities. And indeed, Yeezy’s response to Walmart is that it has no desire to be associated with the retailer. “[T]he last thing [Yeezy] wants to do is associate itself with [Walmart], ” Yeezy says in court filings.
It’s unclear what motivated Yeezy to pick this logo. (The brand did not respond to our request for comment.) But any similarities between the two logos may have less to do with a game of copycat than with the state of branding today. Many companies are opting for flat, symbol-based logos because they travel well from smartphone screens to laptops to billboards. But this means that they run the risk of inadvertently knocking off other logos on the market.
In 2014, Airbnb released a new logo that looked similar to a logo for the tech company Automation Anywhere. The two brands worked together to find a solution, which involved Automation Anywhere releasing a new logo. Then in 2019, Sears unveiled a new logo that also bore a close resemblance to Airbnb’s. But this time, neither brand changed its logo.
So which company will prevail, Yeezy or Walmart? According to Sarah Burstein, a law professor at the University of Oklahoma and an expert on design patents, one issue here is that Yeezy is such a new company. It is unclear exactly what it will produce in the years to come—and how many of those products may compete directly with Walmart. Burstein points out that in Yeezy’s application for this logo, it said it intended to use the logo in an unusually broad range of products including clothes, retail stores, music, and hotel services. “There are so many categories of goods and services in this application,” Burstein says. “It’s enormous. They say they may use the logo in ‘non-metal modular homes,’ for instance.”
Given the variety of products Yeezy might slap the logo on some day, it is not out of the realm of possibility that it may create mass-market products or even become a mass-market retailer. After all, the brand is already collaborating with Gap.
In Walmart’s complaint, the company points out that it “often partners with celebrities to create special lines of products and services,” which could make the similar logos even more confusing. For instance, it has collaborated with Jennifer Garner, Drew Barrymore, Kendall and Kylie Jenner, and others. Walmart did not respond to our request for comment.
More broadly, Burstein says that Walmart is likely concerned that having a logo that is too similar floating out there in the market may weaken the symbolism and meaning of Walmart’s logo. “Even if no one is confused about which logo is associated with which brand, sometimes letting competitors use similar marks will lessen the strength of a registered mark,” says Burstein. But in practice, it is unclear how a company proves that a logo has been diluted. “The idea of blurring is empirically questionable and somewhat problematic,” Burstein says. “Consumers live with things like multiple Delta brands every day, without confusing them.”
In other words, Walmart is making the case that when consumers see a spark on a grocery bag or a billboard ad or a truck, they instantly associate it with Walmart. In its legal filings, Walmart points out that its logo is prominently featured throughout its 5,000 retail outlets, e-commerce platform, and commercials. It is arguing that if Yeezy puts out a similar logo, the consumer may pause whenever they see something approximating a spark logo, to figure out what it is referring to, thereby diluting Walmart’s brand.
Yeezy, for its part, does not seem likely to back down easily. The company’s counsel argues that Walmart’s complaint should be dismissed because its logo is distinct enough, and consumers will be able to distinguish between the two brands. The idea that Yeezy is trying “to mislead consumers into mistakingly believe that the parties are associated, or that [Yeezy’s] goods and services emanate from [Walmart are], simply put, absurd,” the filing said.
It could be a while before the PTO makes a decision about whether or not Yeezy will be allowed to proceed with registering this logo. Burstein says that if the parties want to have an oral hearing on this case, they have until March of 2023 to request one. And if the PTO ultimately denies Yeezy’s request to register, Yeezy always has the option of filing an appeal at the U.S. Court of Appeals. “This is not a quick process,” she says. “This is why a lot of parties decide to settle.”
For now, Burstein says it is unclear which company PTO will side with. But in our current era of design, when many logo designers are attracted to creating two-dimensional abstract symbols, this kind of case may become more common. And because so many logos on the market look so similar, consumers are forced to become more sophisticated in distinguishing between them.