business news in context, analysis with attitude

From MNB reader Jerome R. Schindler, regarding discounter Aldi and its focus on private label:

am not a great fan of Aldi - at least not yet.

Fair or unfair competition?  Looking at the weekly Aldi ad that was with the insert in my Sunday newspaper I noticed that many of their private label products used graphics and colors that basically copied the elements and design of the labels on brand name counterparts.  This is not unusual.  Is this fair?

As a consumer goods attorney I have reviewed many such cases over the years.  While there have been a few decisions that recognized rights of the name brands to their label graphics and/or the package designs, in general what I deem the "infringer" has been given a pass.  A lot of these cases have essentially ended at the preliminary injunction stage and are not appealed so there is no detailed court opinion explaining that result.   I characterize this as "different day, different judge, different result".  The Brand name companies are loathe to sue main line supermarket private label products over this issue as they fear damaging their relationships with their customers.  Of course that generally is not the situation with Aldi as Aldi is usually not a customer.   Some companies after losing have changed and registered their package shape designs to combat this trade dress copying, examples being Head and Shoulders shampoo and Vaseline Intensive Care body lotion.  The same situation applies to trademarks.

I cite two examples, brand name was "Cup-A-Soup"  Competitor name was "Cup of Soup".  Judge said Cup of Soup was just generic language, this no infringement.  Brand name was "Country Time".  Competitor was "County Prize". Product labels totally different.  Judge ruled for Country Time" in part based on hand lettered supermarket signs for the latter read "Country Prize".   I was on the winning side of one, the losing side of the other.  This reminds me of the old retiring lawyer who said "I won some cases I should have lost and I lost some cases I should have won so in the end justice was done".   I know in my lifetime I have been fooled more than once by a private label product that looked almost like the brand name product I was intending to purchase.  Fair or unfair?

On another subject, from MNB reader Karen Shunk:

 I was reading an article on the LA Times regarding the impact of AI on the California market when your newsletter arrived and I read your item on automation.

The LA Times reports on the regional variations highlighted in a report from the Brookings Institution. The Brookings report includes what amounts to a disruption map for AI showing the average share of tasks susceptible to automation in different metro areas around the country. 

I find these kinds of visualizations very interesting – will people pay attention to them and rise to meet the challenges (and opportunities)? I don’t really remember this kind of analysis being out there in advance of or during the changes that gutted the so-called rustbelt.

In any event, I connected this at one end of the spectrum with an article about presidential candidate Pete Buttagieg (buddha-judge), Millenial mayor of South Bend who led the efforts to revitalize his city in what seems to have been a pragmatic, non-partisan manner. At the other end of the spectrum I thought about how companies like Amazon choose to locate their HQs in large cities because of the networking opportunities their workforces have, essentially cutting out smaller cities that otherwise have a lot to offer, but not the critical mass in terms of size of the workforce. I feel like we are at a tipping point in our history with tools like never before – but will we do what’s necessary to make sure we don’t leave large swaths of the country behind in the next round of automation?

I suggested in my commentary that the impact and implications need to be addressed in a sophisticated and nuanced way by the public and private sectors, which prompted one MNB reader tio write:

We are in deep trouble. You expect a President trying to resurrect the coal industry to address the affects of automation? And the top states affected are RED. Oh boy

We had a piece the other day about how colleges are stepping away from teaching things like English and history, and focusing instead on STEM and business courses that, in my view, may be more popular but that do not give students the advantage of a rounded education.

One MNB reader responded:

Thank you for your commentary regarding the quality of an education. I never appreciated the humanities while in school (and much of my working career).  It took my son and his education at Berkeley to help me better understand what I had missed and the tremendous value it brings to all aspects of ones life – including one in a business career.

I applaud you wanting to teach a writing class for business majors/STEM students.  Though calling out “not business writing” may be a bit harsh.

Perhaps I was just lucky, but I took a grad business writing class at East Carolina University decades ago and it was one of the best, most beneficial classes.  Hard to explain, it was just different than any other writing class (business or otherwise) I ever had.  The professor used his text book which typically had always been a red flag for me.  Not so in this case. It is the only text book I still own, many years later.  Perhaps his first name being Keats had something to do with his ability to help my words make more sense than they ever had. For me, Dr. Keats Sparrow made a difference.

I love that you remember his name.

Your email reminded me of a passage from Tom Stoppard’s play, “The Real Thing,” in which his protagonist, a writer, says:

““Words... They're innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos … I don't think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little or make a poem which children will speak for you when you're dead.”

MNB reader Jeff Totten wrote:

I agree with your thoughts about the need for a quality education to include the liberal arts. I teaching marketing, which makes use of many disciplines, including history and literature, as it's a "borrowed" discipline.

I think students today need to be well-rounded in their education and this includes the liberal arts. I'm a little biased, as my mother taught high school English for over 30 years.

From MNB reader Deborah Faragher:

I’m saddened by your reporting on the shrinking of humanities programs in universities. I understand that institutions must control budgets and make tough choices and that many students are opting for majors that lead them to the higher paying jobs. But as schools continue to cut programs such as arts, music, physical education in elementary through high school then chip away at the humanities in college, where do some of the soft skills come from that companies want? It reminds me of my department store days when, every time budgets were tight, we were forced to cut sales staff—the very heart of the business. And look where that got us. Thanks, Kevin, as always, for shining a light.

From MNB reader Joe Jurich:

I agree wholeheartedly! When we fail to teach history and learn from it, we are prone to repeat the mistakes and horrors of the past.  Events of the past become “mere myths” that lead to denial of the events – especially if they do not suit our viewpoint.  Take, for example, the fact that there are groups today who espouse that the holocaust never happened – that it was simply “invented propaganda.”  Without some grounding in the humanities, we risk becoming what Macbeth bemoaned “a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
KC's View: