U.S. Company Pirates Filipino Brand Magnolia

San Miguel is not allowed to sell Magnolia Ice Cream in the United States. Do you know why?

Magnolia is a Philippine ice-cream brand whose origins clearly go back to the 1920s. It has belonged to the San Miguel Corporation for most of its history.

Magnolia Ice Cream

IP Philippines Registration No. 42004005904
San Miguel Corporation, Philippines
Source: World Intellectual Property Organization

In the 1970s, a totally unaffiliated Filipino American family in Northern California started marking their own ice-cream products with the “Magnolia” name in order to capitalize on the goodwill that the original Magnolia had developed among Filipinos from the old country. (This assertion was voiced by U.S. federal judge Richard Clifton during oral arguments in Case No. 13-55537.)

The Filipino American family Quesada, operating as Ramar Foods, filed a trademark application in the early 1990’s claiming the Magnolia mark for their exclusive use in the United States, based on their use of that name and logo for decades. The fact that San Miguel was the originator of that brand identity was overlooked by the U.S. government’s trademark examiners. 

Magnolia USA

USA trademark serial number: 74297882
Ramar Foods, California, USA
Source: Trademarkia

To this day, many Filipino Americans assume that the Magnolia ice-cream they eat in the United States is related to the Magnolia in the Philippines. It is not.

The U.S. brand name and company logo are strikingly similar to the homeland’s original, but it is California’s Ramar Foods, and not the Philippines’ San Miguel, that’s profiting. Ramar’s rationale behind the appropriation is that San Miguel “did not have the vision to know they could sell to Filipinos here.” In effect, brand-name piracy is considered smart business sense in the United States. It may be unethical, but it’s legal.

In 2005, the Wall Street Journal focused on this particular brand-name piracy issue, in which companies in the United States appropriate trademarks from overseas. The article noted that the trend has been buoyed by U.S. immigrants who favor buying the traditional brands they cherished in their home countries. Not surprisingly, these consumers are quick to assume that a product in the U.S. with a name from home is the product they grew up with. In this case, it is not.

There have been many legal cases involving Ramar vs. Magnolia, including Ramar’s recent efforts to prevent San Miguel from selling Magnolia butter, margarine, and cheese in the United States. It is a classic example of using U.S. law to bully a non-USA company, and even the judges in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California appear to recognize it as such. The panel’s decision is expected to be formally issued in mid-2015.

Outside the courts, in the arena of public opinion, Ramar has been actively supported and promoted by Filipino American food bloggers who have received funding from the company.

San Miguel’s victimization is recognized by Philippine-born Filipinos who grew up eating the original Magnolia in the Philippines and who have regularly witnessed many facets of their heritage being appropriated by outside forces. They do not need to be paid money to recognize the inequity in the situation.

Sources and Further Reading:

San Miguel battles Magnolia trademark holder to sell in US (2012)
The San Miguel Group is battling a food manufacturer in California, which had beaten it in securing an identical Magnolia trademark in the United States.

Ramar Foods opposed the application of San Miguel Corporation to register the mark Magnolia for ice cream (1991, 1993)

Download public-domain copy of Ramar Foods’ opposition to San Miguel (PDF)

Magnolia Ice Cream: Ramar Foods versus San Miguel Corporation (Storify)

In 2000, the Philippine Islands’ largest conglomerate, San Miguel Corp., lost a long legal fight to stop a California company, Ramar Foods, from selling Magnolia ice cream, a brand San Miguel owned. From its Oakland factory, Ramar produced flavors that were nearly identical to Magnolia’s — lychee, avocado, corn-cheese and ube — and used packaging and logos very similar to the Filipino company’s. However, there has never been a licensing agreement between Ramar and San Miguel. Ramar was able to get away with making profits off Magnolia’s trade name and trademark logo, because Ramar had filed an application for those in the United States and asserted that it had been using that name and logo for decades. The fact that San Miguel had been using the Magnolia name and logo for much longer in the Philippines and was the originator of that brand identity was irrelevant under U.S. law.

Don’t Sit and Wait: Stopping Trademark Squatters

San Miguel fue fundada en 1890 y es uno de los conglomerados de empresas más diversificados de Filipinas, con una plantilla de más de 15.000 empleados, y genera casi el 3% del producto nacional bruto del país. Una de las marcas más conocidas de San Miguel es Magnolia, su filial de productos lácteos. Desde su creación en 1925 Magnolia ha sido una de las marcas de helados más reconocibles y duraderas de Filipinas, además de ser la más antigua de toda Asia.

San Miguel was founded in 1890 and is one of the Philippines’ most diversified conglomerates, with a workforce of over 15,000 generating close to three percent of the country’s gross national product. The company is perhaps best known for San Miguel Beer, its flagship product, which is among the top ten beer brands in the world. One of San Miguel’s better known brands is Magnolia, its dairy product subsidiary. From its start in 1925, Magnolia branded ice cream was one of the most recognizable and enduring brands in the Philippines and holds the distinction of being the oldest branded ice cream in Asia.

Transcript: Ramar International vs. San Miguel Pure Foods (2015)

Ramar’s lawyer insinuates before the court that San Miguel will be selling “moldy cheese” under the Magnolia brand in the United States. Though repeatedly being reminded that product quality is of no relevance to the legal points being debated, Ramar’s lawyer keeps sneaking in the innuendo that products made by San Miguel, a major Philippine company with a long history of consumer trust in Asia, are inferior.

UPDATE: August 27, 2015

Docket Number: 13-55537

The court reverses the injunction entered in favor of Ramar and affirms the balance of the judgment in favor of San Miguel. 

The above case refers to the Butter, Margarine and Cheese (BMC) issue. 

San Miguel is still prohibited by U.S. law from selling Magnolia branded ice-cream in the United States. The “Magnolia” ice cream that Filipino Americans purchase stateside, despite the logo, is NOT produced by or associated with San Miguel Philippines.

In similar fashion, Ramar Foods also filed a trademark application in the United States for the brand name “Pampanga’s Best” in the year 2000. Pampanga’s Best is a well-known brand in the Philippines, having been in the business of making tocino and longanisa since 1967 until today. There is no existing relation between “Pampanga’s Best” of Ramar Foods USA and the original *Pampanga’s Best* of the Philippines.

Appropriation is the adoption of elements of one group by members of a different group, especially if the adoption is of an oppressed people’s elements by members of the dominant group. Appropriation may eventually lead to the appropriating group being seen as the new face of said elements. As oppressed peoples’ elements are mimicked by the dominant group, observers may begin to falsely associate certain elements with the mimicker, and not with the people who originated them. #OMGpeke