Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Two car-scent companies are duking it out in court.
There’s a putrid rivalry brewing between two makers of one of the most recognizable products in the world: tree-shaped car fresheners. This week, they took their battle to court.
The plaintiff: New York-based Car-Freshner Corporation.
Perhaps nothing captures that artificial new car smell quite like their pine tree-shaped air fresheners dangling from the rearview mirror. These little trees come in scents like “Black Ice,” “Vanillaroma,” and even “Pure Steel” (for the manliest of men, I presume). Roughly 200 million are sold every year, and Car-Freshner boasts that they’ve become associated with the concepts of “freshness, cleanliness, and pleasing scents.”
So it’s no surprise that the company is very protective of its trademarks. “Please don’t misuse our trademarks,” the company writes on its website. “Not on clothes, not in your ads, and certainly not in your burgeoning air freshener business.”
That “burgeoning air freshener business,” in this case, is Ohio-based Exotica Fresheners Co., which also sells fresheners in the shape of a tree—a palm tree, that is. They also have scents like “New Car,” “Vanilla,” and “Exotica Ice.”
But this particular lawsuit is not over the similarities of trees themselves, or even the fragrances. No, this is a battle about packaging.
Both companies sell their products in cellophane packages with yellow cards at the top. Car-Freshner claims in the court papers that Exotica Freshener’s packaging, like theirs, also includes a tree logo in the corner and similar colors to depict different fragrances. And that, as The New York Times reported, could be bad for Car-Freshner’s reputation:
It alleges that Exotica’s products are “likely to cause confusion, mistake or deception as to the source” of the product, and to “falsely mislead consumers into believing” that the products are “affiliated or connected with or are approved by” Car-Freshner.
The court case that began Monday is expected to take four days, according to the Times. But the bitterness between the two companies dates all the way back to 1995, when Exotica had to stop using Car-Freshner’s trademarked names “Royal Pine,” and “Vanillaroma.” In 2011, Exotica Freshener also had to stop using “Black Ice” and “Icey Black,” which Car-Freshner’s lawyer says is the first “masculine-scented” fragrance in the industry.
Car-Freshner says the defendant’s been “free-riding” on the company’s “goodwill and reputation” for too long. Exotica Freshener, for its part, calls the allegations superficial and says consumers won’t confuse the two products because they’ll be looking at the product as a whole—not just the yellow packaging.
After all, how can you confuse a pine tree for a palm tree?