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Marketing firm blamed for deceptive ad campaign

Sunday, September 30, 2007 - 23:00

A brand name and reputation are fragile things. Companies can spend dozens of years building them and lose them in the click of a mouse.

Take, for example, what's happening in Minneapolis, where an Internet marketing company is being blamed for being too aggressive by stealing the brand names — and business — of two long-time competitors. All three body shop companies say their names have been tarnished by the turn of events.

Darrell Amberson, president of Lehman's Garage, and Joanne LaMettry, owner of LaMettry's Collision, are co-plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed Aug. 14 in the U.S. District Court of Minnesota. Lehman's Garage is a six-location auto body repair business based in Bloomington, Minn. The 90-year-old business built its brand through reputation, word-of-mouth, direct mail and radio and television advertising long before the Internet evolved.

The two companies' good names became a target for an Internet marketing company hired by ABRA Auto Body & Glass. The marketing company bought keyword searches from search engines Google and Yahoo, using Lehman's and LaMettry's names, the lawsuit alleges. When Internet browsers typed in "Lehman's Garage" or "LaMettry's Collision," a link to ABRA's Web site appeared before Lehman's or LaMettry's, according to Amberson.

Rollie Benjamin, president and CEO of ABRA, said the marketing company hired by ABRA submitted the competitors' names without ABRA's knowledge or approval.

"At no time did ABRA try to engage in any unethical activity, nor did we direct our agency to do so," Benjamin said in a letter provided to ABRN. "Had ABRA not moved immediately to rectify what was an honest mistake on either our agency's or Google's part, I would agree that our competitors would have a legitimate concern with us. However, in all the years that ABRA has been in business and under my direction, we have never intentionally participated in any dishonest or unethical business practices."

ABRA did not provide the name of the marketing firm that conducted the Internet campaign.

Amberson said he learned what was happening from an insurance company inspector who Googled Lehman's Garage to get directions. "The first thing I did was to contact the major insurers in the area and inform them about it," he says.

"I've been getting an education on trademarks and the Internet," Amberson says. "The prudent thing is to have your business name trademarked."

He also learned to periodically check major search engines by typing in his company's name and seeing what happens.

LaMettry had a similar experience.

"When customers entered LaMettry's Collision in their keyword search they were redirected to ABRA," she says. "We are suffering because our business went elsewhere. I was worried about the perception of our employees and our customers who thought that we were bought out. The potential loss of business is great."

Both LaMettry and Amberson said they always have tried to avoid legal entanglements while running their businesses, but this case was so egregious that they felt they had to do something. The lawsuit claims there was a violation of the companies' trademark rights and also a state statute on deceptive trade practices.

Benjamin said his company acted quickly to fix the problem once it was brought to their attention. The Internet campaign lasted only about two weeks before the mistake was discovered. Despite this, he said ABRA's reputation was damaged by these events and subsequent negative publicity.

"What was an error on our behalf turned into a brand and reputation-destroying vendetta which, in my opinion, could be bordering on defamation," he said in the letter to ABRN.

ABRA is a national vehicle repair company. Benjamin co-founded ABRA in 1984 and built the business into 92 locations — 68 company-owned and 24 franchised — in 12 states. ABRA has 25 locations in the Minneapolis area.

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