Macrobrewer Anheuser-Busch InBev recently applied with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to register 619 (a San Diego area code) as a trademark for beer, along with similar applications for thirteen other U.S. area codes, including 314 (St. Louis), 305 (Miami), 202 (Washington, D.C.), 602 (Phoenix), 412 (Pittsburgh), 704 (Charlotte), 702 (Las Vegas), 214 (Dallas), 415 (San Francisco), 216 (Cleveland), 303 (Denver), 615 (Nashville), and 713 (Houston).
Anheuser-Busch’s application for 619, if successful, would allow A-B to prevent other competitors in the beer market from using that area code as a brand identifier. It’s also possible that their umbrella of trademark protection would extend to related products, such as hard alcohol and paraphernalia.
Earlier this year, Anheuser-Busch purchased a Chicago brewery, Goose Island, which makes a beer called “312 Urban Wheat Ale,” a reference to the area code for Chicago. Their attempt to register the area code trademarks listed above suggests that the company is going to produce “local” beers marketed through the use of recognizable area codes.
This story is particularly resonant for San Diego, which was named the #1 beer city in the United States by Men’s Journal. San Diego’s breweries are known for, among other things, favoring strongly flavored, aggressively hopped beers. Would A-B’s 619 brew attempt to copy this style? Or would all of their area code beers be the same? Do all of Anheuser-Busch’s beers come out of the same pipe, as is the case with their animated equivalent?
From a trademark law perspective, this raises the issue of whether an area code should be barred from receiving trademark protection on the grounds that it is geographically descriptive. Consumers need to know where their products come from. The USPTO’s guidelines reflect this policy. This question rests initially on whether the primary significance of the mark is a generally known geographic location. In this case, to the extent most consumers in the U.S. attach any meaning to the number 619, it would be as San Diego’s area code. It could be argued that this is an attempt by A-B to co-opt the reputation of the San Diego beer community and to claim part of that territory for their exclusive use. On the other hand, does Charlotte have a reputation for a certain type or quality of beer?
I’m not aware of any prior cases that address whether or not area codes may be protected as trademarks. Although the idea of using a zip code or area code in association with a product is not a new idea, it appears to be gaining popularity. Using an area code as a trademark is favorable from a marketing perspective because doing so generates favorable connotations in the minds of consumers. It remains to be seen how Anheuser-Busch will attempt to use the trademarks – they were filed on an Intent-to-Use basis, and they do not currently appear to be in use in the marketplace – and what the reactions of the San Diego and other local beer communities will be.