Storm brews over TWG tea logo in HK court

SINGAPORE - A Hong Kong tea company founded in 1932 saw red when a Singapore competitor opened an outlet in the territory using the same abbreviation, TWG.

Tsit Wing (Hong Kong), which is listed in Singapore, and its subsidiary Tsit Wing International took TWG Tea Company to court, arguing a breach of its trademark.

Last week, a Hong Kong judge agreed with Tsit Wing, holding the Singapore-based firm liable for the breach and the additional claim of "passing off" its business as Tsit Wing's by using a sign containing the abbreviation in its restaurant.

Both parties will return to court tomorrow to hear TWG Tea's submissions regarding Tsit Wing's demands and Deputy High Court judge John Saunders' decision on the damages and other remedies Tsit Wing is seeking.

TWG Tea, which is 45 per cent owned by Osim International, opened a restaurant in Hong Kong's IFC Mall in December 2011, triggering the stand-off between the tea giants.

The Tsit Wing Group, which was founded as a family business, has used the TWG logo since 2006. In 2011, its gross sales were HK$393 million (S$64 million), of which HK$111 million was from tea, noted the judge in his grounds last Wednesday.

In the meantime, The Wellness Group, incorporated in Singapore in 2001, has used its TWG Tea logo since 2008.

TWG Tea has tea shops in Singapore, as well as a presence in about 10 countries, including a retail counter in the Harrods department store in London and outlets in Tokyo.

The judge noted the company's argument that it made luxury tea products and supplied the food services industry, upmarket hotels and airlines such as Singapore Airlines, indicating it was a well-known and reputable brand in itself.

Its Hong Kong lawyers denied the trademarks were "substantially identical or confusingly similar".

They said there was ample evidence to differentiate between the two and Hong Kong law allowed the use of one's own name in accordance with "honest practices in commercial matters".

But Judge Saunders was not convinced, noting Tsit Wing had held the registered trademark in Hong Kong since 2006 and in the US since 2008.

He noted that a similar move by TWG Tea to register its trademark in the US in 2009 was refused by the authorities there.

'Misleading sign'

Judge John Saunders had harsh words for TWG Tea for using the date 1837 in its sign, when in fact the company started in 2008.

Company officials explained that 1837 referred to the year when the Chamber of Commerce was founded in Singapore, which was then an important tea trading hub. Its inclusion was meant to celebrate that year, they said.

But Judge Saunders found this was not the "real intention". He said: "There is no doubt that the existence of the date 1837 in TWG Tea's sign has led people to believe that the company was established at that time."

He noted, among other things, that Bloomberg Businessweek had published an online report in October 2011 saying the Singapore-based company was founded in 1837.

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