Morroccanoil Israel Ltd (MIL) has successfully obtained injunctions against some of Aldi’s lookalike products, but only on the basis that the marketing misrepresented they were “natural” products and further that their argan oil content conferred certain “performance” characteristics. MIL’s claims that the products infringed its trade marks and “passed off” failed. MIL did successfully appeal the Registrar’s refusal to register “Moroccanoil” as a trade mark and fended off Aldi’s attempt to have MIL’s trade marks removed on the grounds that they were not capable of distinguishing.

Katzmann J’s decision runs to 741 paragraphs, so there is a lot more ore to be mined than I shall cover in this blog post.

MIL has two registered trade marks in Australia1 in respect of, amongst other things, hair care products:

TM 1221017
TM 1375954

 

 

 

 

 

Although its get up varied over time, you can get a good idea of how it sold its products in Australia from the following:

Aldi (Like Brands, only cheaper) introduced its own range of Moroccan Argan Oil products such as:2

 

The Trade Mark Infringement Claim

MIL put its case on trade mark infringement on Aldi’s use of Moroccan Argan Oil, not the get up of any product packaging.

Despite Aldi’s reliance on the presence of the PROTANE (or PROTANE Naturals) or VISAGE house brands, Katzmann J had little difficulty despatching the claim that Aldi did not use Moroccan Argan Oil as a trade mark over the fence for six. The term was not purely descriptive; argan oil was only one ingredient of many and only the 11th or 12th ingredient in terms of volume. Viewed objectively, it clearly presented as a badge of origin, especially when depicted with oil drops instead of “o”.

However, Katzmann J held that Moroccan Argan Oil was not deceptively to either trade mark. A central consideration was that each of MIL’s trade marks was a composite mark. “Moroccanoil” was a prominent feature, but the prominent “M” was an equally prominent feature.3

Further, by the time Aldi came to adopt “its” trade mark, there other players in the market using the expression “Moroccan Argan Oil”.

Treating “Moroccanoil” as the relevant essential feature of MIL’s trade marks, Katzmann J accepted that the interposition of “Argan” between “moroccan” and “oil” may well not interrupt the recall of the brand moroccanoil but nonetheless went on to hold at [220]:

…. In my view, there is no real, tangible danger that an ordinary or reasonable consumer with an imperfect recollection of one or other or both those marks or, as was argued, the name “Moroccanoil”, would wonder whether a mark called “Moroccan Argan Oil” is or is associated with either of the composite marks that are the First and Second Trade Marks.  Ignoring similarities in the get-up of the respective products, including the colour-scheme and packaging, I am not satisfied that the hypothetical consumer would mistake the Aldi “Moroccan Argan Oil” mark for the First or Second Trade Marks or wonder whether the Aldi product is made by the owner of the First and Second Trade Marks.  Considering each of the First and Second Trade Marks as a whole, I find that the Aldi mark is not deceptively similar to either of the MIL marks.

Four other points

First, MIL placed heavy reliance on what it said was evidence of 58 consumers being confused that Aldi’s product was MIL’s. These included reports of people who said, or were reported to have said, that they had bought MIL’s products in Aldo’s stores although, of course, MIL’s products were not available in Aldo’s stores.

Only one of those consumers gave direct evidence and Katzmann J considered there were sufficient deficiencies in her evidence to regard her as an unreliable witness.

For example, the witness had a clear recollection of seeing different Aldi products displayed together although it appears to have been accepted they were only displayed in different parts of the store, she referenced MIL’s get up rather than its trade mark, she admitted to being distracted by a distressed child and it emerged that she had not disclosed her previous experience working in advertising as the basis for concluding Aldi’s product was some kind of brand extension.

All the other evidence was the more typical hearsay evidence of employees of MIL and its distributor and stockists about what customers told them. Katzmann J accorded this evidence no weight. Her Honour’s reasons warrant very careful consideration, especially as this type of evidence (if not its scale) is very typical.

206 That is because the evidence largely consists of reports given to others in a way that makes it impossible to decide what was responsible for the confusion. Certainly, there is nothing to suggest that any deceptive similarity arising from the get-up of the products or aspects of it were disregarded. The evidence provides either no or no sufficient foundation for the conclusion that any purchase of an Aldi product was made because of the deceptive similarity of the respective marks.

The indirect nature of the evidence was critical as it meant there was no context to assess the conduct:

207 …. Matters such as the following are often left unclear, or are completely unexplained: whether the person was aware of MIL’s products when they encountered the Aldi products, and if so to what extent; which Aldi product(s) were in issue; in what circumstances the alleged confusion occurred, including what level of attention the person gave to the Aldi products at the time; whether there were other factors at play that might have led to the person acting in the way that they did; and any other relevant circumstances. It would be essential to understand these matters in order to accord any weight to the evidence.

208 In view of the way in which the evidence was adduced (predominantly through witnesses to whom the reports were either directly or indirectly made by anonymous consumers), and in the absence of contemporaneous records, it was not possible for these matters to be explored in cross-examination.

209 Furthermore, even at face value a number of the reports do not bespeak of confusion, let alone deception. In one case, reported by Ms Williamson, the consumer said that she had bought products at Aldi that “look like” MIL’s products. While this is illustrative of similarity, it does not denote deceptive similarity. Some of the evidence consists of second-hand hearsay, such as the complaints received by Thierry Fayard. As a matter of common experience this evidence is unreliable ….

Secondly, MIL sought to rely on Aldi’s alleged intention to trade on MIL’s reputation in its trade marks. There does not seem to have been any real dispute on the evidence that Aldi had set out to “benchmark” its products at least partly on MIL, but also partly on another competing product by Organix:

214 Ms Spinks’4 evidence is insufficient to demonstrate that by the choice of the name “Moroccan Argan Oil” Aldi set out to mislead consumers into thinking that the Aldi brand was moroccanoil. No precise evidence was led as to how Aldi settled on the name “Moroccan Argan Oil” and no questions on this subject were asked in cross-examination. If its object were as alleged, then one would think it would call its products “Moroccan Oil”. The name Aldi chose was different. The name Aldi chose —“Moroccan Argan Oil” — was the name then used by Organix, whose products Aldi had used as the “benchmark” for its shampoo and conditioner. Further, the ultimate product was not taken to market before Aldi had received advice as to compliance with Australian laws. Ms Spinks said that an organisation known as “Silliker” (Silliker Australia Pty Ltd) was retained to undertake “due diligence checks” to ensure that proposed product packaging and labelling complied with relevant “regulations” and the Australian Consumer Law. She was not challenged about this evidence in cross-examination.

A third aspect is that MIL also sought to lead evidence of 13 other major brands which Aldi was said to have knocked off “lookalikes”. MIL wanted to use this evidence as tendency evidence under s 97 of the Evidence Act to show that Aldi deliberately copied product get ups to take advantage of their reputation.

Katzmann J accepted that could potentially be relevant evidence. MIL’s application failed, however, because its notice was not sufficiently specific to comply with the stringent requirements for the admissibility of such evidence and it was given too late. Moreover, the evidence would not carry matters further than the direct evidence of Ms Spinks. At [129]:

… tendency evidence is generally used to prove, “by a process of deduction, that a person acted in a particular way, or had a particular state of mind, on a relevant occasion, when there is no, or inadequate, direct evidence of that conduct or that state of mind on that occasion”: …. Here, however, there was direct evidence from Ms Spinks of the development process in relation to the goods in question. The evidence MIL wished to adduce as “tendency evidence” consisted merely of samples and images of other, unrelated products. It did not include any evidence as to how or why the get-up for the particular products was selected. It takes the evidence given by Ms Spinks no further. Consequently I am not persuaded that the evidence in question has significant probative value.

Even if the tendency evidence had been admitted, it would not have helped on the trade mark case as it was evidence of a tendency to adopt features of get up, not the trade mark itself.

Finally on this part of the case, Katzmann J held that Aldi’s hair brushes and dryers etc. were goods of the same description as the hair care products in class 3 covered by MIL’s registrations. As with Aldi’s own hair care products, however, there was no likelihood of deception or confusion so s 120(2) did not come into play.

The ACL claims

MIL brought three claims under the Australian Consumer Law alleging that Aldi had engaged in misleading or deceptive conduct by:

  1. misrepresenting that its products were MIL’s products or in some way sponsored or associated with MIL (i.e., a passing off type claim);
  2. misrepresenting that its products were made from, or substantially from, natural ingredients; and
  3. misrepresenting that the argan oil in the products gave the products performance benefits which they did not in fact have.

As noted above, MIL succeeded only on the latter two claims.

In relation to the passing off claim, Katzmann J accepted that Aldi had modelled the get up of some of its products on MIL’s get up5 and sought to appropriate some of the reputation of MIL’s products to its own benefit. At [380]:

Aldi unquestionably modelled its Oil Product on the MIL Oil Treatment. Ms Spinks referred to it as “the benchmark” product. Aldi copied several of its “diagnostic cues”, including the use of a bottle very similar in style, size, shape, and colour, the same pump mechanism for the extraction of the oil from the bottle, the use of a cardboard box, and the prominent use of a similar colour for both the bottle’s label and the box. Ms Spinks accepted in cross-examination that Aldi’s object was to achieve an exact colour match with the bottles and conceded that consumers would associate the colour of the bottle and the type of packaging with the MIL product. ….

and

384 The evident purpose of copying important features of the MIL Oil Treatment was to remind consumers of that product. It would be naïve to believe that in doing so Aldi was not seeking to capitalise on MIL’s reputation and attract to itself some of its custom. I find that in adopting the particular get-up for the Aldi Oil Treatment bottle and box, Aldi copied from the get-up of the MIL Oil Treatment and box and that it did so in order to appropriate part of MIL’s trade or reputation or the trade of MIL’s authorised distributors and resellers.

That was not sufficient in itself for a finding of misleading or deceptive conduct. The question was whether or not Aldi had sufficiently distinguished its products from MIL’s.

Katzmann J considered that, if regard were paid only to the similarities between the respective get ups, there would have been a likelihood of deception. However, it was necessary to have regard to the respective get ups as a whole. When considered as a whole, there were important differences which served sufficiently to distinguish Aldi’s products:

  • first, ALDI’s products were prominently branded with its well-established house brands PROTANE or VIGOUR;
  • secondly, MIL’s products featured the very prominent large “M”, which was not replicated in ALDI’s get up;
  • thirdly, in MIL’s products “moroccanoil” appeared vertically, while Aldi used “moroccan argan oil” horizontally only;
  • fourthly, there were significant differences in the packaging, especially the shampoo and conditioner which were closer to the Organix product than to MIL’s;
  • fifthly, the closest products – the competing oil treatment products – were sold by MIL in a glass bottle, but Aldi had used a plastic bottle only;

Her Honour considered that none of these differences were concealed and were at least as conspicuous as the similarities. Further, viewed as a whole, the Aldi range was cheaper and the use of the house mark clearly marked the products out as a different brand. Further, the two businesses marketed their products through completely different trade channels and at very different price ranges.

MIL’s heavy reliance on the similarity of the turquoise colours used did not avail:

413 Colour-blind, inattentive consumers, and consumers with an imperfect recollection of the MIL products might confuse the colours. I accept Professor Quester’s evidence that consumers are unlikely to detect subtle differences in colour between two sets of products as they would not ordinarily engage in a side-by-side comparison. Indeed, I am prepared to accept that a not insignificant number of consumers might think the colours are the same. On the other hand, as Ms Spinks’ evidence shows, at the time Aldi entered the market with “Moroccan Argan Oil”, at least one other company, Organix, was selling hair care products in turquoise containers and also under the name “Moroccan Argan Oil”. Other products, like Pure Oil of Marrakesh, were sold in cartons, bottles and other containers featuring various shades of blue.

414 Knowledge of third-party usage of a particular get-up or name can affect the chances that a consumer might be misled or deceived.

As in Cadbury v Darrell Lea, MIL did not have a monopoly in the colour.

MIL also failed in its attempt to rely on the printing of “Moroccan Oil” on (at least) some Aldi receipts. At [428], they were issued after purchase, which was too late.

As one would expect, the failure of this part of MIL’s ACL claim was also fatal to its passing off claim.

Natural products

I don’t propose to go into the detail of why the use of the brand name Protane Naturals was misleading or deceptive other than to record that Katzmann J did find the brand name deceptive since the relevant products were not substantially “natural” products. There is some quite involved evidence about what a “natural” product is or may be if you are going to get into that sort of thing.

Performance representations

Some of Aldi’s products claimed on their packaging to “helps strengthen hair” and “helps protect hair from styling, heat and UV damage” and similar claims.

Katzmann J rejected Aldi’s argument that this was a reference to the capabilities of the product as a whole rather than as a result of the use of moroccan argan oil. Apart from the presentation on the packaging and the prominence given to that oil, Aldi’s own internal documents claimed it was the argan oil that conferred these attributes.

MIL’s scientific evidence established, however, that there was too little argan oil (which is apparently very expensive) in Aldi’s products to have the desired effects. Needless to say, the expert evidence dealing with this part of the case is also rather involved.

Wrap up

Overall and barring the outcome of any appeal, this seems like a rather Pyrrhic victory for MIL. I don’t have any idea how much damages will flow for the breaches of the ACL. Nonetheless, here is plenty of scope for Aldi to continue using its lookalike get up; the prevention of which was surely the point of the exercise. What is more, the result was achieved only after a very lengthy trial including, amongst other things, eight experts: 2 lexicographers, four marketing experts and two chemists!

Moroccanoil Israel Ltd v Aldi Foods Pty Ltd [2017] FCA 823

  1. Following her Honour’s decision (and barring any appeal), it will have three including TM No. 1463962 “moroccanoil” in respect of Hair care products, including oil, mask, moisture cream, curly hair moisture cream, curly hair mask, curly and damaged hair mask, argan and saffron shampoo, hair loss shampoo, dandruff shampoo, dry hair shampoo, gel, mousse, conditioner and hair spray in class 3. ?
  2. In addition to hair “lotions” such as shampoo, Aldi also marketed hair brushes and powered hair dryers and the like. ?
  3. Those of you who read 140 year old case law might also be thinking about the striking colour scheme. Katzmann J, citing the 5th edition of Shanahan and the Office Manual, held that MIL’s trade marks were not limited to the specific colours as there was no endorsement under s 70 and so the marks were taken to be registered for all colours. One could be forgiven for thinking this approach renders the Register seriously misleading at times. ?
  4. The Aldi employee charged with introducing the range. ?
  5. The Aldi shampoo and conditioner products were “benchmarked” on Organix’ get up, not MIL’s. ?