From dropping the meerkat to trademark squatting – how brands reacted to the war in Ukraine

When more than a month ago Russia invaded Ukraine, the war act caused general shock and global waves, since this is the largest military attack on a European state since World War II. As the impact was global, so was the response: a direct military intervention is feared to escalate the situation, thus heavy political and economic pressure is put on Russia to stop and withdraw.

By 31st March, almost 500 companies decided to completely withdraw from Russia, suspend their activities, scale back, or hold off new developments, while 42 companies (including Hungary-based MOL Group) listed by Yale are getting the heat, because they have not yet disclosed their stance publicly, or even explicitly defied demands for implementing sanctions.

Václav Kudělka, a Zlín-based Czech designer redesigned the logos of some those brands, which turned their back on Russia, “if they could speak.”

Brand responses

Besides business concerning Russian activity, companies take stance by other economic or symbolic actions. Sympathy is expressed by many forms, often by changing logos to blue and yellow, the colours of the Ukrainian flag, but Compare the Market, a British price comparison site implemented another brand-related change: the company removed their popular 13-year-old mascot from ads, an animated meerkat portrayed as Aleksandr Orlov, a Russian oligarch.

Sainsbury’s, the U.K.’s second-biggest supermarket-chain stated that it would no longer sell Russian Standard vodka and Karpayskiye black sunflower seeds. Sainsbury’s explained: “We stand united with the people of Ukraine. We have reviewed our product range and have decided to remove from sale all products that are 100% sourced from Russia.” After the invasion, online game developer Wargaming removed images of tanks and combat vehicles from its advertising and instead focuses instead on in-game narratives.

Product placement – in war

In the middle of the war, John Deere, the tractor brand received an unexpected mention: in Ukraine, farmers have used their tractors to pull Russian tanks, and this story is successfully contributing to a narrative, where Ukrainian civilians are almost elevated to war heroes, just like the driver asking to pull stranded soldiers back to Russia or the myth of the tank-stealing gypsies. Although John Deere shut down its stores in Ukraine at the start of the war, and also suspended shipments to Russia, Marco Rubio suggested the company to provide more tractors to Ukraine. A Twitter user concluded d the videos about the incidents presented the best product placement for the tractor company since a famous episode of “Mad Men”.

Famous rebrands…

As previously mentioned, companies have adjusted their image to express support to Ukraine, or even distance themselves from Russia. But some brands felt the need for a complete rebranding, such as formerly Stolichnaya, now Stoli vodka. Stolichnaya is a well-known soviet brand, now made in both Kaliningrad and Latvia, which ownership is disputed by the Russian state-owned company FKP Soyuzplodoimport and SPI Group, a private company founded Yuri Shefler, who moved to Luxembourg when Vladimir Putin came to power. In March 2022, Stolichnaya formally changed its name to Stoli to stress separation from Russia. “I have personally experienced persecution by Putin’s regime and I share the pain of Ukraine and its people,” Shefler stated the Stoli Group website.

Another example of political name changing does not concern a certain company, but a dish: chicken Kiev – or now Chicken Kyiv. Sainsbury’s is one of the UK food retailers to announce that they changed the name of their own brand dish to “chicken kyiv” to reflect the Ukrainian spelling of the capital. However, Marks & Spencer, the retailer, who popularized the dish in the country is now facing pressure as they stand with the “Kiev” spelling. “M&S said it will not be making the change, as it “prioritises” aid over symbolic gestures.”

…turning to infamous trademark squatting

Many international companies leaving Russia means that they are leaving a void in terms of services or products, and they are also leaving infrastructure – in Russia, and trademark squatters (third parties filing trademark applications for well-known marks, to piggyback on the original brand’s fame) are ready to take these.

The most infamous example is the Uncle Vanya fast food restaurant (chain?) built on the infrastructure of McDonald’s, who haven’t even left the country, just closed its units for indefinite duration, while still paying employees. In the trademark filing submitted on 12th March, we can see Uncle Vanya’s yellow and red logo, which is eerily similar to that of McDonald’s, just rotated 90 degrees to the right and connected by a yellow line to form a B (Cyrillic V for Vanya) instead of the well-known M. The speaker of Russia’s lower house in parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, said the week before filing the trademark claim, that Russian brands should take over McDonald’s locations. “They announced they are closing. Well, okay, close. But tomorrow in those locations we should have not McDonald’s, but Uncle Vanya’s. Jobs must be preserved, and prices reduced.”

IKEA will most probably fall victim to a similar trademark squatting, and eventually becoming IDEYA,  and many other brands, including high-profile fashion brands can also fear the same. The Federal Service for Intellectual Property in Russia (Rospatent) has seen a rise in the number of trademark applications for the names of well-known global brands, like Nespresso, Starbucks and Instagram. This is following a decree by the Russian government, which is enabling domestic companies to use the patent-protected elements of brands from “unfriendly” countries (i.e., Western nations that have issued sanctions). The decree is also hinting that other intellectual property rights currently held by Western companies (Chanel, Christian Dior etc.) might soon be lifted for Russian entities to use freely – basically without any consequence.

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