INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY

Alcohol-laced gummi bears pit Basque youths against German giant Haribo

The maker of the popular candy has sent a cease-and-desist letter to the young entrepreneurs behind Ositos & Co, citing trademark infringement

When Ander Méndez, Tamar Gigolashvili and Julen Justa had the idea to sell alcohol-laced gummi bears, they were not expecting this kind of media attention, nor did they realize they were walking into legal trouble.

Last year, these three twentysomethings from the Basque Country region of Spain decided to combine sweets with alcohol because they made “a good match.” But a few weeks ago, they received a cease-and-desist notice from Haribo, the German multinational, which said the Basque bears look too much like its own Gold Bears.

The letter demanded an immediate end to manufacturing and sales, and the transfer of the Ositos & Co domain name, ositosconalcohol.com, to Haribo.

“We got in touch with a lawyer who said he’d never seen anything like this before. He gave us two solutions: either drop the whole business or deal with the consequences,” says Méndez.

The young entrepreneurs from Portugalete, a town west of Bilbao in Biscay province, have chosen the second path: facing up to the German giant. “There are many similar brands working with little bears, and they are not Haribo,” adds Méndez.

Haribo says it is only “protecting and defending” its intellectual property rights and its image. In a statement sent to this newspaper, the company said it had initiated “the standard legal procedure in these cases” in order to protect its trademark. The statement added that Haribo has no intention of taking over the alcoholic sweets market. On its webpage, Haribo says that it registered its Gold Bears as a trademark in 1967.

The legal wrangle has made the pages of Spanish, British and German newspapers. While the German outlets Bild and Die Zeit stated that Haribo had formally sued the Spanish company, the confectionery giant denied this.

In its first year, Ositos & Co made between €20,000 and €25,000 from sales of around 6,000 units, according to the latest company data. “What little we have made, we have reinvested in new production, and now on lawyers,” says Méndez. The Basque start-up is facing a giant with 7,000 employees (500 of them in Spain) that makes around 100 million gummi bears a day, according to the company website.

In a telephone conversation, Méndez said that the media attention has been good for his company. “Visits to our website have soared. Some visited out of curiosity, and others to buy. We get peaks on the days that German media outlets talk about us.” Sales mostly come from Barcelona, Madrid and the Basque Country.

Méndez says they have received many messages of support, and a few not so supportive ones from “haters.” “Lawyers and businesses have expressed support. We are very grateful, even if we end up crashing or this turns into an international mess,” he says.

Méndez warns that seven or eight of these Basque bears are the equivalent of a glass of wine or beer, since its alcohol content is 15%. “You need to be just as careful as though you were having a conventional drink. We meet the same legal conditions,” he notes.

The product was first sold at cocktail bars in the Basque region, then at Valencia airport. Due to growing demand, production was switched from Burgos, in the region of Castile and León, to a factory in Álava province.

“It’s typical of young people to mix candy and alcohol. With this project, we were remembering the good times we’ve had out partying,” says Méndez. “We didn’t mean any harm.”

English version by Susana Urra.