#FRENCHTECHFRIDAY: Why France’s startups can no longer “Pitch”

Feb 16, 2018
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little bread

A strange battle is taking place in France right now. A cake maker is threatening startups of legal action for using the word “pitch”. This could seem like a comical slip-up if it weren’t, in fact, tragic for France’s image abroad.
 

Pasquier vs Startups

The “startup nation” is taking an unexpected blow. Keen to display openness, to provide fertile grounds for upcoming startups, France is facing an attack from another age.
 
Pasquier, maker of cakes, has a star product: “Pitch“. It’s a little fatty “milk bread” filled with chocolate. The main target are the kids as you could guess just by looking at the packaging. So what does this have to do with France based startups?
 
It starts with the product name. The trademark was registered, as it should, with the INPI (National Institute of Intellectual Property). The brand owner must choose the class in which he wishes to register. For some reasons, Pasquier decided to register the name “Pitch” in classes outside food, such as “training”. Therefore, any training facility helping startup CEOs to upgrade their pitch cannot use that name in their brand. Events like “Pitch in the plane” become intellectual property theft.
 

Is this a joke?

The first reaction is usually that of incredulous giggles. This could be a well designed April’s fool. The French candy maker “Carambar” had announced some weeks prior to April 1st that they would discard the jokes hidden inside their packaging. These jokes were such a trademark that people all over France signed petitions asking them to reconsider. Laughter – and relief – made for a big marketing stunt when they annouced it wasn’t true on April 1st. But April is still some way away. And startups have started receiving cease and desist letters. This would be taking the joke a bit too far.
 

Is this a language fight?

It also brings other puzzling questions. A common word cannot become a registered trademark. Sure, “pitch” is not a French word. Yet it is commonly used in the startup, litterature and movie worlds. One can look it up in a French dictionnary. And this is were is gets tragic.
 
Languages that grow are the languages that bring in new words. Either made up or imported from foreign countries. France has an history of so-called “French exception”, resisting foreign influences as much as possible. This gave France the reputation of an old country, closed to innovation.
 

Is France the home of bigotry?

Fighting hard to overturn this image, we are now putting forward mantras such as #Franceisback and “startup nation”. Yet, such actions undermine all these efforts by bringing back the old demons: “France is a home for bigotry”.
 
This is not true, of course, but it reminds us that while trying to move forward, one should always be watchful of those who regret the old ways.
Besides, it doesn’t answer the critical questions. Why did the INPI accept the registration of a commun word? Why does Pasquier have such resentment towards startups? Obviously “Pitch on a plane” is not about eating cakes on an aircraft. How can this be of prejudice to Pasquier? Is this about saving the French language? Is this even a publicity stunt that turned sour? Is this just for easy money? As a patent troll would do?
 

Bad marketing and bad communication

None of this is clear. Pasquier delivered a press release which made things worse in an impulse of bad communication. The hashtag #Pitchgate is roaming Twitter. The Wikipedia page of the group now includes the Pitchgate. Fun bit is, INPI organized a a “pitch night” last November and it wasn’t about stuffing your face with cakes.
 
There is a comforting thought, though: just about no-one supports Pasquier’s actions. They’re stuck between a Streisand effect and a David vs Goliath opus, where they’re playing Goliath. Maybe this will, in time, become a case study for marketers and communication officers. In the meantime, let’s hope this brings little prejudice for those who try everyday to make things happen in the French startup ecosystem. And that it does not bring down the image of a witty, disruptive and innovating country.