A Caffeinated Clash: Starbucks vs. Starbung

By Rachapat Sumjinda

Starbucks, the world-renowned coffee chain with branches across the globe, is known for its premium quality coffee and exceptional customer service. With over 36,000 outlets globally and continued revenue growth, Starbucks is clearly doing something right. However, its prices are often considered steep, particularly among average income earners in certain countries, resulting in the emergence of other more affordable alternatives. One such example in Thailand is “Starbung Coffee”, a coffee vendor offering local coffee blends at a reasonable price point.

What’s in a name? 

Starbung Coffee – founded by Damrong Maslae, known to his customers as “Bung” – adopted a logo reminiscent of Starbucks’ green, white and black circular design into his brand. Instead of the iconic double-tailed mermaid, Starbung’s logo had an Islamic take, with a Muslim man at its center, green colour in the outer circle and stars on the sides. “Bung” in Malay stands for brother, making up the name, “Starbung”, according to Damrong. 

Trouble brewing between Starbucks and Starbung…

As a former student of Thammasat University that was located between both coffee shops, I can say that there was a significant difference between the two.

However, Starbucks did not seem to think so, and the conflict between the two coffeeshops escalated when Starbucks sent a cease-and-desist letter to Starbung for trademark violation on the basis of similarity in name and trademark to Starbucks’ “siren mark”.

Among the key conditions listed on in the letter were:

  • To stop using the Starbung mark and any other name or trademark similar to Starbucks
  • To remove or destroy any existing products, signs, advertising materials such as stickers bearing the mark or the word “Starbung Coffee” within seven days of receipt of said notice; otherwise Starbucks would proceed with legal action.

Following the cease-and-desist letter, Damrong decided to add a crescent moon to the stars on the side of the Starbung logo to further distinguish the brands. This minor alteration was deemed as unsatisfactory and a second letter followed suit, urging the Thai coffee vendor to make substantial changes to their logo, and even offering to help the local brand redesign its logo.

Damrong eventually conceded and decided to change the name of his coffee stand to “Bung Star” and create a new logo for his business. The new logo, which had the words “Bung’s Tears,” was designed to express his feelings from his experience with Starbucks.

(Image Source: https://www.nationthailand.com/in-focus/30220265)

Despite the legal challenges that he has faced, Damrong remains determined to continue operating his coffee stand and providing his local coffee blends to his customers.

Brewed Awakening: Key Takeaways

Starbucks’ attempt to resolve the issue through such measures received public backlash and scrutiny. The public saw Starbucks as bullying a small coffee stand through legal means.

The conflict between Starbucks and Starbung raises a number of questions, namely about the balance between the protection of IP rights and fair competition in the marketplace. It further highlights the challenges small businesses face in protecting their rights against large multinational corporations. The case also underscores the importance of trademark protection and the consequences of infringing on trademarks, even if it is unintentional.

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