The Curse of Red Star Logos

Stars are logos which have long been in use and which have very positive connotations – stars are, after all, “up”. And the colour red is also very popular for logos, signifying many positive connotations, particularly in many Asian countries where red is a lucky colour.

But perhaps the combination of the two elements – a red star – when used as a logo is particularly unlucky, from the multiple perspectives of trade mark law, laws relating to state emblems, and in respect of cultural sensitivities. Here’s why.

1. This week it was reported that Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban’s ruling party had initiated a bill seeking to ban the red star logo from being featured as product trade marks. This was because of the perception within the former Soviet-bloc nation of the red star as a symbol of Communism. The bill pushes for harsh penalties including fines and even a two year prison sentence for anyone selling products that feature totalitarian symbols such as the red star. Amsterdam-based brewery company Heineken, which uses a very prominent red star on its labels, is in the firing line should this bill become law. But there has been media speculation that this is a form of government-led retaliation against Heineken after a court ruled that the locally brewed “Csiki” beer, popular with ethnic Hungarians, was too similar to Heineken’s Romanian-language “Ciuc” brand, and that the Hungarian brewer had infringed Heineken’s trade mark rights. (One wonders how this law banning totalitarian symbols would affect Russia’s airline, Aeroflot, which still features the hammer and sickle in its logo.)

2. Heineken has in the past been keen to protect its red star logo. In 1997 Heineken opposed San Pellegrino SpA’s trade mark application. San Pellegrino is a globally famous supplier of bottled sparkling mineral water. The opposition was dropped by Heineken two years into the dispute.

3. In 2014, Yum Brands’ new outlet, “Bahn Shop — Saigon Street Food”, offered Vietnamese cuisine under a red star logo. But the use of the logo caused outrage amongst members of the local Vietnamese community living in the United States who had opposed North Korea in the Vietnam War, or fled Vietnam’s Communist regime. The Dallas News reported in 2014 that Yum Brands dropped the red star logo from its visual identity, and offered an apology to the local Vietnamese community.


(Photo credit: CBS DFW)

4. In relation to Vietnam, Australian budget airline Jetstar (a subsidiary of Qantas) were ordered by the Vietnam Government’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAAV) to change its orange star because of the potential for confusion with domestic airlines, although ostensibly because the use of the mark indicated a right to service Vietnamese cities when in fact this was limited to the framework of an agreement with the Vietnamese government. Jetstar is reported on travel blogs to be advocating its rights to use the Jetstar logo for its services in Vietnam in compliance with the agreements between Qantas and the Vietnamese government, and a trade mark registration with the Intellectual Property Bureau.\As at October 2016, the CAAV is reported to be waiting for the issue of guidelines from the Vietnamese government to address the matter. The CAAV’s order looks suspiciously like an effort to nationalise the logo. Below on the left is the Vietnamese flag, and on the right is an image of an aircraft bearing the logo of Jetstar Pacific, which operates in Vietnam:

The learning for exporters from these examples is to avoid offending both the laws and cultural sensitivities of export markets by using a particular logo. And also, perhaps, avoid using an unlucky red star.