Court limits testimony of Marketing Expert Witness citing lack of experience analyzing consumer confusion from either a legal or marketing perspective in trademark infringement suit
Posted on October 18, 2023 by ewp_staff_writer
In the case involving Plaintiff Blue Bottle Coffee, LLC and Defendants Southern Technologies, LLC and Hui Chuan Liao, the Plaintiff, a coffee business, filed a lawsuit in August 2021 and an amended complaint in November 2021. The dispute centered on alleged trademark infringement and unfair competition claims. The Plaintiff held multiple registered trademarks, including two solely consisting of a shade of blue, Pantone 2995 C, and asserted trade dress in its product packaging.
Defendants, who began using the name “Blue Brew” in 2017, were accused of selling coffee-related products with packaging and branding that closely resembled the Plaintiff’s, including the use of a similar shade of blue and the word “blue.”
On April 7, 2023, the Plaintiff served three expert reports from Jeffrey S. Andrien, Norman Broadhurst; and Jill Morton. Jill Morton provided testimony regarding branding and the use of color in the case. On May 22, 2023, updated versions of these reports were provided to the Defendants. Jill Morton was deposed by the Defendants on July 20, 2023. Subsequently, on August 11, 2023, the Defendants filed a Daubert motion to exclude Jill Morton’s testimony challenging the reliability and relevance of each of Morton’s three conclusions and her corresponding analyses: (A) the color blue as a source-identifying attribute of Plaintiff’s brand, (B) the color blue that the parties used in connection with their brands was “similar or nearly identical”; and (C) the combined effect of the color blue and the word “blue” on Defendants’ products would cause consumer confusion with Plaintiff’s products.
Marketing Expert Witness
Jill Morton is the CEO of Colorcom, a consulting firm that “specializes in helping companies understand how to use color most effectively.” Morton received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she also completed a fifth year of study in the Graduate School of Education. She also received a Master of Fine Arts in design from the University of Hawaii. As a color consultant, Morton leverages her extensive technical and professional knowledge about color to provide guidance on a diverse range of projects. Her expertise encompasses aspects such as the psychological impact of color, creative color combinations, harmonious color choices, visual ergonomics, and staying current with marketing trends. Morton applies these critical factors to offer successful solutions for her global clientele.
Discussions by the Court
Jill Morton had a degree in Art Education and an MFA in design, along with over twenty years of experience as a “brand identity expert.” She had also taught courses on color at universities and colleges for over 20 years, including a graduate-level course on the psychological and physiological effects of color. The Court found her qualified to provide testimony regarding Plaintiff’s use of the color blue as a source-identifier, emphasizing the broad conception of expert qualifications under Rule 702.
Defendants had argued that Morton’s qualifications were unreliable because she wasn’t a licensed psychologist or a scientist and hadn’t published peer-reviewed papers. However, Morton clarified that she referred to herself as a “color consultant” and only discussed psychology in the context of how it related to branding and consumer behavior, drawing from her extensive marketing experience. The Court agreed that her expertise was rooted in her marketing experience, and any questions about her qualifications went to the weight of her testimony, not its admissibility.
Defendants also contested the reliability of Morton’s testimony because she didn’t conduct consumer surveys or interview Blue Bottle employees about their advertising strategies. Morton defended her opinion, stating that she relied on her experience advising brands on color and consumer associations. The Court agreed that the absence of surveys or interviews impacted the weight of her testimony but didn’t render it inadmissible.
To prevail in a trademark infringement claim, the claimant needed to demonstrate the validity of their mark, which could be through federal registration, a suggestive mark, or secondary meaning in the market. Morton’s discussion about the functionality of blue in branding was relevant to the trademark infringement inquiry, as it related to the validity of the marks.
Morton proceeded to assert that the shade of blue used by the Defendants on their packaging, Pantone 305 C, was “nearly identical” to the Blue Bottle Blue Marks, Pantone 2995 C. She emphasized her expertise in both Pantone and CMYK colors, backed by 20 years of experience in understanding how consumers perceive these color systems.
To facilitate the jury’s evaluation of these color similarities, Morton conducted a Pantone color analysis. Pantone, a company and system for classifying colors, formulates mixing formulas for various shades. Morton provided a breakdown of the color ingredients for Pantone 2995 C (Blue Bottle Blue) and Pantone 305 C (Defendants’ blue) based on the Pantone Color Guide. She explained that these colors contained varying proportions of Pantone Pro Blue and Pantone Transparent White, which determined the degree of lightness for each shade.
While Pantone 2995 C (Blue Bottle Blue) had a relatively small percentage of Pantone Ref Blue, Morton pointed out that it shared identical ingredients with Pantone 305 C (Defendants’ Blue) in terms of Pantone Pro Blue and Pantone Transparent White. Consequently, Morton concluded that the shades of blue were “similar or nearly identical.”
Morton had also conducted a CMYK analysis, which is a color formula system for printing materials. It involves using varying percentages of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black to create specific shades of color. In her analysis, Morton compared the CMYK formulas for Plaintiff’s and Defendants’ shades of blue, using a Pantone guide called “Color Bridge by Pantone.” She found that both colors predominantly consisted of cyan, with only minimal amounts of other colors. Additionally, Morton analyzed two unrelated shades of blue, contrasting them with the Plaintiff’s and Defendants’ colors, noting that they contained more magenta and black.
Defendants had primarily questioned the reliability of Morton’s CMYK analysis, contending that Plaintiff provided no evidence to establish the peer-reviewed or previously accepted nature of her particular CMYK analysis methodology. Morton had clarified that she used the CMYK analysis to translate and confirm the Pantone color composition and similarities she observed. Her approach didn’t involve mathematical analysis but consisted of commentary regarding the CMYK breakdown of four different shades of blue, including those of the Plaintiff and Defendants, all based on Pantone formulas.
The Court held that in certain fields, Morton’s extensive experience was considered a primary basis for reliable expert testimony, citing Lucido v. Nestle Purina Petcare Co. Her analyses were conducted based on two decades of practical experience with these techniques, aimed at explaining why the two colors might appear similar to the human eye. Given the relatively specialized nature of color’s role in branding, her experience and method explanation were deemed adequate. Any concerns about the reliability of Morton’s analysis could be addressed through cross-examination.
Morton had stated that she conducted the two color analyses with the purpose of assisting the jury in evaluating the similarities between the marks, as the “Similarity of marks” is a relevant factor in establishing the likelihood of confusion, one of eight factors considered in trademark infringement cases.
Defendants had argued that there was no need for a “framework” for jurors to compare two colors, as the differences between Plaintiff’s BLUE BOTTLE BLUE Marks and the colors used by Defendants were obvious, and one didn’t need to be a “color psychologist” for such a comparison. Morton herself acknowledged that jurors who had passed some color vision test could perform the color comparison just as well as she could. However, the Court recognized that Morton’s testimony went beyond a mere side-by-side comparison. She delved into the ingredient breakdown of the two Pantone colors, especially considering Plaintiff’s trademark registrations specifically claimed Pantone 2995 C. Morton translated the Pantone ingredients into ink makeups for printing, aiming to provide a nuanced perspective on color and its components as seen from a professional color consultant.
While jurors could assess color similarity on their own, the Court found that Morton’s expertise could be useful in providing a framework for color interpretation and offering insights into the similarities between Plaintiff’s and Defendants’ shades of blue. Therefore, the Court concluded that Morton was permitted to provide this framework and analyze color similarities based on her experience as a color consultant.
Morton also relied on Blue Bottle’s longstanding use of its marks and the combined effect of the BLUE BREW brand’s use of a similar color and the word “blue” in its name to argue that there was a likelihood of consumer confusion. Defendants challenged her lack of experience analyzing actual instances of consumer confusion from either a legal or marketing perspective. The Court agreed with Defendants, stating that her testimony wouldn’t assist the trier of fact, as it was essentially a side-by-side comparison, and her determination usurped the role of the jury as factfinders.
In conclusion, the Court granted the motion to exclude Morton’s testimony regarding the likelihood of confusion between Plaintiff’s and Defendants’ products but allowed her testimony in all other respects.
This case illustrates several important considerations for expert witness testimony under the Daubert standard. First, reliability hinges on the expert’s qualifications and experience in their discipline. The Court found Morton qualified to testify about color and branding given her extensive background, though unqualified on consumer psychology. Second, helpfulness to the jury is key for relevance. Morton’s color analyses assisted the jury in evaluating trademark validity and similarity, but her opinion on consumer confusion usurped their role.
Third, methodology matters, especially for scientific testimony. Morton’s color analyses using standard systems were sufficiently reliable from her experience, but her “consumer confusion” analysis lacked sound methodology. Fourth, ultimate legal issues are off limits. Though experts can embrace ultimate factual issues like similarity, they cannot give opinions telling the jury the legal result to reach. Fifth, if in doubt, exclude under Rule 403. Expert opinions with weak methodology risk confusing or misleading jurors.
In summary, Daubert requires a flexible inquiry, but proponents must show experts are qualified, use reliable methodology, and provide opinions helpful to the jury without invading its role or confusing the issues. This helps ensure expertise reliably informs while preserving the jury’s fact-finding function.
Posted In: Expert Challenges, Marketing Expert Witness
Tagged In: Branding, Consumer, Experience, Expert Testimony, Psychology, Trademark Infringement