After moving to Wisconsin, I came to appreciate many things about Wisconsin culture, including the near-universal adoration of Kwik Trip. After a few visits to Kwik Trip, I realized that Kwik Trip was something I had experienced long before ever having been to Wisconsin. In my native state of Iowa, Kwik Trip had been present my whole childhood. The only difference is that I recognized it under the Kwik Star brand name. Many Wisconsinites I share this with are shocked that such a thing exists. In fact, the Milwaukee Record trekked to Iowa to witness the phenomenon for themselves a few years ago. The reason why my childhood featured Kwik Star, while those of my Wisconsin peers featured Kwik Trip, is a product of none other than trademark law.
According to its company website, Kwik Trip opened its first location in 1965 in Eau Claire, expanding its stores from there into other locations in Wisconsin and Minnesota. In 1993, Kwik Trip opened its first store in Iowa. The trouble was that QuikTrip, an Oklahoma-based convenience store chain established in 1957, had already been operating locations in Iowa. According to its company website, QuikTrip opened its first Iowa location in 1974. What’s more, QuikTrip would register its first trademark in 1994, making QuikTrip “quick on the draw” for trademark registration. Kwik Trip elected to brand each of its new stores in Iowa as “Kwik Star,” which it likely did to avoid claims of infringement on the QuikTrip trademark. As Kwik Trip expands into additional states, including Illinois and South Dakota, it is opening Kwik Star stores in those new states, instead of Kwik Trip stores. Kwik Trip also planted its registered trademark flag in 1996 and 2019 on the Kwik Star brand name to ensure its protection.
Why then are there still Kwik Trip stores in Minnesota and Wisconsin, even though QuikTrip has a registered trademark, and had been operating convenience stores longer than Kwik Trip? It is likely because the use of Kwik Trip in Minnesota and Wisconsin is protected as a common law trademark. A common law trademark affords protection to a mark holder to the extent that the mark holder can prove it was the first party to use the mark in a certain territory. Since Kwik Trip was the first to operate convenience stores in Wisconsin and Minnesota under the Kwik Trip (or any other variation of the spelling) name, it has likely attained common law trademark status in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
What then are the takeaways from this trademark tale? I think there are a few:
- It is a good idea to have a lay of the land for brand and company names in your industry before launching or expanding a new brand or company name. By knowing what is already out in the wild, you can anticipate where potential infringement issues can arise and adjust accordingly. It is possible that there would not have been any tension or rebranding at all between Kwik Trip and QuikTrip had one party been aware of the other and/or adjusted before they ended up competing in the same territory.
- Registered trademarks are valuable. I recognize my bias as a trademark attorney when I write this. However, in contrast to a common law trademark, registered trademarks provide so many added benefits, such as the presumption of nationwide use of registered trademarks. In other words, instead of needing to prove a mark holder used a mark first in a certain territory, it is presumed that the registered trademark is protected nationwide as of the date of first use claimed on the trademark registration. With that in mind, it can be in the best interest of companies, particularly ones with broad geographic ambitions, to register their trademarks early to receive that presumption of nationwide use.
Thanks (Kwik Trip, Kwik Star, and QuikTrip fans alike) for reading!