Jonathan Ward's sister Elizabeth isn't a car enthusiast. But she was thrilled when she saw a rugged, upright 4x4 with a canvas top, exposed door hinges, and an ICON decal on the hood. She posted a photo to Facebook and tagged her brother, whose company, ICON 4x4, is legendary for stuffing modern drivetrains and gorgeous amenities into classic Toyota off-roaders. But the photo Elizabeth posted, captioned "Just saw my first ICON 'in the wild'," doesn't show a resto-modded FJ. It's a new Jeep Wrangler, wearing a lift kit and "ICON Edition" sticker package installed by Chicagoland dealership Bettenhausen Automotive. And that set things spiraling for Jonathan Ward.
"One of the people on Facebook did quick research off the license plate and found the dealership and sent me the link and I literally fell out of my chair," Jonathan told me over the phone. "The audacity, the flagrant disregard for intellectual property and branding [. . .] they didn't even change the damn font."
Jonathan's company owns the trademark to the word "ICON" as applied to land-going vehicles. And while it's not far-fetched to think that two organizations separated by 2000 miles could both independently choose "ICON" as a name for their rugged 4x4s, the dealership's "ICON Edition" package is a headache for Jonathan in more ways than one.
In our phone conversation, Jonathan explained that the legal onus is on him to defend his trademark. "Say I let these guys go, I go 'whatever, it's a Jeep, nobody will be confused, it's just a sticker.' Then let's say Jeep decides to come out with an ICON edition, or Hyundai, or Tatra, or whoever. When you go to court, they actually have a case—they can say you have not protected your mark in the past, and your mark can be deemed generic, and you lose your mark."
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And that's to say nothing of the similarities Jonathan sees between the two ICON logos. "I thought it was just a guy that took the RUB off [of Jeep's factory RUBICON hood decal]. Then I went to that dealership's actual website and looked at the photos in more detail, and then it became immediately apparent that it's my exact font," Jonathan said.
In addition to his sister's well-meaning photo, Jonathan has received numerous emails from people who thought his company started modding late-model Jeeps. That's a problem for a tiny upstart like ICON 4x4, a brand that, while well-known to enthusiasts who've followed the company's 10-year story, exists only vaguely if at all in the minds of non-gearheads. "At root the idea is that ICON has clearly-defined aesthetics and standards and materials," Jonathan told me. "If people see these [Jeeps] rolling around and, just like my sister, see it and think that's us, it's a whole different creature."
If Jonathan sounds defensive about his company's image, it's not without precedent. ICON was involved in a tussle with Mattel after a Hot Wheels toy appeared to lift heavily from an ICON design. A concept illustration posted to the Hot Wheels website, but later removed, even appears to be directly based on an ICON photo of Jonathan driving one of his company's 4x4s.
Jonathan and Mattel settled the dispute without going to court. "The unfortunate law of the land is such that the big guy can bury the small guy," Jonathan told me. "We just kinda had to walk away from it and call it a compliment."
At first, it might seem odd for ICON, a company that has no trouble selling every one of its $100,000-plus boutique builds before they're even completed, to go after a Chicago-area dealership looking to boost its margins by throwing lift kits, glitzy wheels, and decal sets on brand-new Wranglers. And while the folks at ICON only learned about these Jeeps last week, Bettenhausen Automotive have been at it since at least late 2012.
Indeed, it's hard to say whether or not the folks at Bettenhausen chose the ICON brand as an intentional grab at the notoriety of Jonathan's company. Folks at the Chicago-area dealership refused my request for comment on this story. And while Jonathan calls it "blatantly obvious, all the way down to the font, that they knew damn well," there's no way for R&T to verify that. The dealership seemed to envision its ICON Edition Jeeps as part of a whole lifestyle, with an ICON Off-Road Club website, a Facebook page, and teaser videos for the off-road club and the vehicles they modified under the same name.
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As of right now, it seems that the ICON vs. ICON flap has settled, with the Chicago dealership taking down the webpages previously associated with its ICON-branded Jeeps. "We've pretty much always been able to state our case through a cease-and-desist letter and a polite conversation or two," Jonathan told me. "Obviously I have no interest in pissing money down lawyer holes [. . .] My end game is to protect my mark at all costs, because if I don't, I'm fucked."
Creating an identity in the automotive world isn't easy, especially for a small-timer operating independently from the gargantuan corporations that steer this industry. That's equally true for Bettenhausen and for ICON. That they both settled on the same four-letter name to differentiate their rugged 4x4s makes things complex for both parties. And it illustrates just how hard it can be to truly differentiate your offerings from the rest of the crowd.
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At time of writing, it appears Bettenhausen has removed its webpages describing the ICON Edition Jeeps. We've located cached versions of the pages as they originally appear.
This article originally appeared at RoadandTrack.com.