Bethany Koby, chief executive of digital toy startup Tech Will Save Us, was gearing up for the busy Christmas season when she was thrown a big curveball.
She woke up to find her startup’s name plastered all over the UK on billboards and on the front page of the Sun newspaper.
BT had launched its new multi-million pound advertising campaign with the slogan “Technology Will Save Us”. That sounded a little too familiar.
“All of a sudden I literally started receiving hundreds of emails and text messages and Facebook messages with photos of the campaign,” Koby told Sifted.
Koby, who founded Tech Will Save Us seven years ago, said that she had not been told in advance that the trademarked name of her startup would be used in the campaign.
She took to social media to air her frustration.
It’s not clear whether BT knew in advance that their ad slogan was almost identical to the startup’s name — but if you Google “Technology Will Save Us” the first, second, third, fourth and fifth hits are all related to Koby’s startup. “It’s baffling how we ended up in this situation as we’re all over Google. Checking this kind of stuff is advertising 101,” said Koby.
Soon after the launch of the campaign Koby contacted BT asking for a meeting but did not initially get a response.
Her story gained traction on social media and featured in The Sunday Times two weeks later. She received a long stream of supportive tweets and comments from entrepreneurs and others in the tech industry, including Priya Guha, venture partner at Merian Ventures.
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After waiting over a week to get a response Koby “finally” heard back from BT and has scheduled a meeting for later this week. Koby won’t be going in on the defensive, however. She’s hoping to achieve a strategic partnership.
“Rather than taking the legal angle with them, we chose to reach out to them to talk about partnership because we apparently share a similar mission now because their campaign is about digital skills.”
BT’s new brand image — just like Koby’s startup — is built around empowering children with 21st-century digital skills. It’s announced a new training programme designed to provide essential digital skills training for 10m school children, families and businesses across the UK.
“I just hope that they're prepared to come to the table with some solutions that will be appropriate and amenable for us and will not just benefit BT but benefit the wider community as well,” said Koby.
If a partnership doesn’t work out Koby said she isn't ruling out the possibility of taking legal action over what she said is an infringement of her trademark. “There's been a bunch of lawyers that have come out pro bono to donate their services to us,” she said.
She emphasised how useful it was to have the support of a strong community in helping her voice get heard against such a big company. “I think the importance of that community has definitely been a strong learning. We didn't do it for this reason, but you never know when you might need it.”
In a statement a spokesperson from BT apologised for “any distress” to Koby caused by the campaign. “We have been in correspondence with Bethany over the last two weeks to arrange a meeting; unfortunately, due to her diary and travel commitments the earliest opportunity to meet is this coming week.
“In the meantime we have taken steps to remove the copy 'Technology Will Save Us', which referred to our use of technology in our 999 call centres, from all ad campaign formats. We won’t be using this line in our ad campaigns in future.
“We hope the actions we have taken will allow us to reach a mutually agreeable resolution and to draw a line under this.”
"However, we are disappointed that Bethany has chosen to speak out publicly and to media outlets before we’ve had the opportunity to meet and discuss this with her. We are working with a number of major partners in our recently launched digital skills programme and this isn’t how we would deal with them or prospective partners,” said the BT spokesperson.