Belfast Telegraph

How NI teen entrepreneur's business spirit was crushed in battle with drinks giant Coca-Cola

Hana Hughes and her mum Barbara
Hana Hughes and her mum Barbara
Margaret Canning

By Margaret Canning

A teen entrepreneur from Dromore in Co Down has been prevented from selling her alcohol-free drink after a legal battle with Coca-Cola.

Hana Hughes (17), a pupil at Banbridge Academy, was 16 when she came up with the idea of distilling her own gin as part of a skills test in her Duke of Edinburgh programme.

But the youngster has since been subjected to the rigours of intellectual property law by the Coca-Cola Company over her entitlement to use the brand name 'Ginnocent', which the fizzy drinks giant claims is too similar to its smoothie and juices brand Innocent Drinks.

Hana's parents Stuart and Barbara are vodka distillers and the owners of The Still House gastro-pub in Moira.

Barbara said that she had poured cold water on Hana's plan at first.

"I told her she was too young to be involved in alcohol distilling," she explained.

"But she said to me she might distill a non-alcoholic gin for drivers or pregnant ladies, which made me say to her: 'Let's have a think about it'."

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Hana started making Drivers' Gin in her parents' stills using botanicals like juniper, coriander, cubeb, black peppercorn and sweet orange.

"She tested it out on our bartenders, who were pleasantly surprised and said it tasted like gin and tonic," said Barbara.

But when the product was given a soft launch in The Still House, it incurred the displeasure of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association over use of the words 'gin' and 'spirit'.

Now unable to use those words, Hana came up with 'Ginnocent'.

Barbara said: "I trademarked Ginnocent for her, and that was her surprise present on Christmas Day."

But Innocent Drinks contacted the family to tell them to expect a letter warning that the name could not be used because it was too similar to the name of its product.

Hana said: "When I heard from Innocent, I was very shocked that they even noticed the product was out there. It seems strange to me as I don't understand how my product actually is similar to Innocent."

Hana said Innocent had been "very nice" to her, even offering at one point to fly her to its base at Fruit Towers in London.

"They explained that because Coca-Cola is their majority shareholder, they don't get a say in what is pursued. But they said they were happy with the fact that I was a 16-year-old entrepreneur, but they just couldn't do anything to stop the legal process."

After negotiations with Innocent, taking place when not revising for her Christmas exams, everyone agreed to the name 'Ginocent' and a plan to trademark the logo rather than the name.

Innocent presented a suggested logo to Hana, who then spent £554 on getting a professional designer to create a sophisticated new version. But that design was vetoed by Innocent on the advice of Coca-Cola's trademark lawyers. Criticisms included that it didn't approve of the style of 'G'. As a result of the action, the family withdrew the trademark as continuing the legal wrangle would have started to cost them more money.

Hana said they were continuing to get more and more enquiries about the product, but they simply can't put a legally-compliant label on it.

Interest in the product is coming from as far away as Canada, and the alcohol-free category is a growing market.

Barbara said: "We get more product enquiries about Ginocent than we ever had for our Ruby Blue vodkas and liqueurs, or any of the small batch products that we make."

Hana is studying A-levels in biology, psychology and computer science and says the experience may influence her future career decisions and whether or not she'd like to work for a big company. "Well, I like to be a bit of an optimist and say they're not all picking on the little guy, but I think now I'd prefer working for a small business," she said.

Innocent Drinks said: "We support entrepreneurs but we've also worked hard to build our brand and need to protect it.

"We worked closely with Hana and the Hughes family to find a solution that worked for everyone, including offering to pay for the submission of another trademark.

"We hope that Hana's business will succeed in the coming years."

Belfast Telegraph