For Rain Marie Shields, it all began with a dream. Literally.
“I was dreaming of this little gourmet popsicle floating around in my head. I think it’s very funny because I don’t actually eat popsicles, or never did before,” she said.
That dream convinced her to create her own, locally-sourced frozen treat company Starsicles, which has been successfully touring around B.C. for the last four years. But her dream may be coming to a premature end, as Popsicle-owning multinational corporation Unilever is threatening to oppose her Canadian trademark application. Her American trademark approval has already been reversed.
“Our lawyer said he’s never seen it before in his life,” said Shields, referring to their reversed approval. “We can’t prove anything. We can’t say Unilever forced them to do it or anything like that. But it’s highly suspicious,” she said.
Shields created Starsicles in 2010. She created treats and sold them at farmer’s markets, festivals and weddings. The company proved popular, and became a hit all over Nelson and the Kootenays.
“In 2012 we moved to the Okanagan to expand the company. We had 3 booths, about 12 staff, it was really rocking and rolling. That’s when I started thinking we could build a little popsicle empire.”
Shields applied for trademarks in both Canada and the U.S., and waited to hear back.
“Things were just rolling along. You have to wait a fair bit of time when you apply for a trademark. They scan all the names that have applied and then they’ll say you’re good to go. They send you that approval and then there’s another stage. It’s called opposition. They publish your trademark application and people who they haven’t been able to contact can oppose you,” she said.
Things went smoothly at first.
“The American one got approved at that stage, and before it did anything else Unilever made their presence known last Christmas. That’s when I first became aware they were on the scene for my little company,” she said.
Shields obtained a lawyer, who informed her that at least 12 other companies with names such as Dreamsicles and Momsicles have been bullied out of having their trademark applications going any further by Unilever.
“We’re not the first,” she said. “But we’re the first singing popsicle company from Nelson.”
Shields’ partner Daniel Carlson said he thought the letter was inappropriate, and that Unilever was going to unusual ends to protect its trademark against a small, locally run business.
“They started to threaten us. They said we’re opposing you in Canada. If you do this, we’re going to sue you. You’re going to have to give us all the property with Starsicles on it, and we’ll destroy it. It was a heavy-handed, horrible letter,” said Shields.
She was initially intimidated by their tactics.
“We wrote back and said both Daniel and I deal with disabilities…and this was really frightening. I make fun when I say they scared the living popsicle pants off of us, but in fact it was extraordinarily scary.”
Shields said they’re now unable to purchase a commercial kitchen or expand their business until the legal proceedings are settled. She said they feel hobbled by Unilever’s bullying tactics.
“They haven’t actually opposed yet. They said they’re going to,” she said. According to her lawyer, Starsicles is capable of winning the suit because Unilever doesn’t own the word “sicles”. However, they can argue that customers will be confused by the similarity in names.
“By the time we’re done you’ll see we’re worlds apart,” said Shields, noting that their company runs on a not-for-profit, profit-for-love community plan and has a charitable aspect called Starshine Enterprises.
Both Carlson and Shields are committed to fighting Unilever for the right to use the name Starsicles. When asked whether they considered changing it, they both said no.
“It’s like a school yard bully saying you’re not Bob anymore, you’re Floyd,” said Carlson. “I’ve got a friend named Bob, so you can’t have that name anymore. It’s ridiculous.”
Shields and Carlson launched their Planet Bennu campaign to raise awareness and funds to fight Unilever on June 25. They have written music, produced songs and created an entire mythology that Starsicles’ enthusiasts can engage with.
Shields said she’s soldiering on because of the support from a woman name Deb Robinson in her building who offered to contribute financially shortly before having a stroke. When she asked Robinson in her hospital bed whether she should fight Unilever, Robinson whispered “yes”.
“I can’t give up because of Deb. She’s out silent partner now,” she said.
For more information visit planetbennu.com