In a dramatic reversal of position, Salesforce.com has bowed to global pressure and not only withdrawn its attempts to trademark 'social enterprise' but also ripped up its marketing strategy and decided no longer to use the term itself.
Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff had responded to the furore from the social enterprise sector by reiterating that the firm intended to “register the trademark SOCIAL ENTERPRISE in connection with ENTERPRISE SOFTWARE only”.
But this was not enough to convince the sceptics or to allay fears of an already embarassing PR situation getting considerably worse. With the Dreamforce annual conference - Salesforce.com's single biggest marketing effort of the year - less than two weeks away, the prospect of protests at the conference loomed large.
Yesterday Benioff said: “It was never our intention to create confusion in the social sector which we have supported since our founding. As a result of the feedback we received, salesforce.com has decided to withdraw its efforts to trademark the term ‘social enterprise’ and plans to discontinue its use in our marketing.”
The decision to scrap a major plank of Salesforce.com's marketing strategy was an unexpected development and presumably leaves the firm with some decisions to made about how to rebrand key messages. Dreamforce attendees themselves are urged to "touch the social enterprise" on the conference home page.
"According to Salesforce.com’s own marketing material the Social Enterprise can be defined as 'Intentionally using social media to engage with customers and deliver an experience that builds brand loyalty for the enterprise'. Having decided to withdraw its application to trademark the words “Social Enterprise” at the behest of the not-for-profit sector, the company’s marketing investment in that phrase will alas not earn brand loyalty for Salesforce.com," argued Dr Katy Ring of analyst house K2 Advisory.
"However, Benioff can take comfort from the fact that his marketing dollar has helped shape a new enterprise software category and hopefully he will continue to use the term rather than confusing buyers by coining another term. To paraphrase George Orwell (1984), “All marketing was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary." The social enterprise category is too new to reinscribe. Please do not attempt to scrape clean!"
The climbdown came after notable figures from across the globe added their support to the campaign against Salesforce.com’s bid to trademark the term. Professor Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, and Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, co-authors of The Spirit Level, are just some of those that put their names to a protest letter to Benioff.
The letter stated that Salesforce.com’s attempt to use the term for “private profit” is“very damaging to our movement” and called on the Cloud giant to withdraw its current and all future applications regarding ‘social enterprise’, as well as to stop using the term to describe its products and services.
Salesforce.com had attempted to trademark the term in the US, UK, Australia and Jamaica. However, its application to the Unites States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) was initially rejected back in March on the grounds that “the applied-for mark merely describes a feature or purpose of applicant’s goods and/or services”. A deadline was also fast approaching for an appeal on that rejection.
In addition the US based Social Enterprise Alliance backed the protests by Social Enteprise UK to block the Salesforce.com efforts. The SEA launched a new project, THISisSocialEnterprise.com, which it describes as "a launching pad for social enterprises and their friends to tell the stories of a global movement that began long before Salesforce.com began using the phrase to describe its Cloud products".
"Clearly, Salesforce.com’s trademark application, if successful, could pre-empt legitimate social enterprises from using this elegant but ubiquitous phrase to describe the hard, innovative work they do to create a better world. The term is generic and descriptive, and until very recently was never construed to describe a Cloud CRM system,” said Kevin Lynch, President & CEO of SEA. “In fact, there are many social enterprises already operating in the computer and software spaces for which Salesforce.com is specifically attempting to secure the mark. They, along with all social enterprises across the globe, would be deeply damaged if Salesforce.com succeeds.
“We believe it is important to not simply oppose Salesforce.com’s efforts, but to create a greater understanding of the global movement for the good which salesforce.com — perhaps inadvertently — threatens. We will be launching THISisSocialEnterprise.com as a way of conveying to Salesforce.com and its business partners exactly what is at risk if its strategy succeeds.”
Lynch added that he had "reached out" to Benioff over the matter. “The fact that Salesforce.com invented the 1/1/1 model for integrating people, technology and resources towards a better world convinces us that they would be an ideal partner for building the social enterprise movement that we represent,” Lynch said.
“Nothing about the company causes us to attribute any ill intent to their marketing efforts around ‘social enterprise’. We imagine that it is simply a case of ‘mistaken identity’. We hope that engaging them to not only disambiguate the term, but to actually help us build the international movement, might be an even more potent platform for them.”
Additonal reporting by Natalie Brandweiner