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Stone Brewing co-founder calls MillerCoors rebrand a ‘horror’ for craft brewer

Social media posts shown in court Monday bolstered Stone Brewing’s claims consumers were confused by MillerCoors’ rebranding of economy beer Keystone Light.

SAN DIEGO (CN) — Stone Brewing co-founder Greg Koch testified Monday in a trademark trial he had a pit in his stomach after reading a Reddit thread where beer drinkers said they’d initially confused the rebranding of MillerCoors Keystone Light economy beer for one of his craft brews.

While the San Diego-based craft brewing entrepreneur had based his entire business identity around “Stone,” the one in his stomach now made him feel sick.

“My reaction was dismay and concern about confusion in the marketplace. This is the kind of thing that develops that pit in your stomach and is not a very good feeling,” Koch said Monday afternoon.

Koch said his physical reaction was to a Reddit thread where users had shared news about his trademark lawsuit against MillerCoors — now known as Molson Coors — based on claims the beer conglomerate’s rebranding of its economy Keystone Light lager was aimed at confusing beer drinkers into thinking it was produced by Stone Brewing.

One commenter said they almost “fell” for the Keystone Light rebranding.

“I thought it was a nice, cheap Stone,” the user wrote.

Another commenter said: “The first thing I thought when seeing them [Keystone Light] in the aisle was ‘Stone’s branding has gone to shit.’ Then I looked closer and assumed a lawsuit would be incoming.”

That prediction proved to be true: Stone Brewing sued MillerCoors in 2018 for trademark infringement of the word “Stone” in connection with the sale of alcoholic beverages.

Koch said Monday he and co-founder Steve Wagner met in the music industry in 1990 before partnering on the brewing venture. They settled on the name Stone and acquired the trademark — which is incontestable — in 1998.

“We understood copyrights from the music industry, and I had a basic understanding of trademark,” Koch said.

“We decided we liked the name ‘Stone.’ You’ve got to have a name you can hit the road with, and it’s got to be your name, no questions,” Koch said of doing their “due diligence” to ensure the trademark remains theirs and is properly renewed every 10 years through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

The trial has been in session for a week, with Molson Coors CEO Gavin Hattersley testifying several days.

Hattersley said MillerCoors’ rebranding was aimed at taking back dwindling Keystone Light sales from its competitors in the economy beer market, not poaching Stone Brewing’s customers who paid a premium for its bitter craft brews.

But social media posts shown in court Monday indicated at least some beer drinkers were confused by the new marketing strategy launched in April 2017 which separated the words “key” and “stone” on cans sold in grocery, liquor and convenience stores.

An email shown in court from December 5, 2017 sent to Stone Brewing’s general inbox asked: “Any upcoming news regarding Stone Light?”

Several tweets were also shown in court where users tagged Stone Brewing and Greg Koch in pictures of Keystone Light billboards.

In a picture of a Keystone Light “Reach for the Stone” billboard one user tagged Stone Brewing and wrote: “Love your new billboard, the brand is unmistakable at 80 mph.”

The marketing confusion trickled down from billboards and onto store shelves, Koch testified during questioning by his attorney Noah Hagey.

Stone Brewing sales reps were concerned, sending Koch and his employees pictures of Keystone Light displays in stores.

One photo featured a stack of cartons of Keystone Light where the word “Stone” was in large font on the side of the boxes, creating what Koch called a “wall” or “lattice” effect.

“What impression did this make on you?” Hagey asked Koch.

“I don’t want to sound overdramatic, but horror,” Koch responded.

He added: “It’s beer, it says the word ‘Stone’ and it didn’t come from Stone Brewing. Steam coming out of my ears, flummoxed — all of the reactions.”

Another photo of a store display of Keystone Light cartons featured a store-printed price tag tapped to the wall above the cases of beer with the disclosure: “Not a beer from Stone Brewing.”

“The reason they had to look out for us is because there is confusion and they’re having to point out ‘Hey, this isn’t a beer from Stone,” Koch said.

Hagey followed up: “Before 2017 had you received outreach identifying any concern of confusion with the defendant’s Keystone Light product?”

“We had not,” Koch responded.

The trial is set to continue Tuesday.

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