Africa’s Maasai tribe is thinking about trademarking their name and designs, the BBC has reported.  Isaac ole Tialolo, a Maasai leader and elder, who is also chair of a new organisation, the Maasai Intellectual Property Initiative, has, together with Light Years IP (an NGO which specialises in securing IP rights in developing countries), been travelling around Maasai areas holding meetings and workshops.  If the consultation is successful, the plan is to create a General Assembly of Maasai elders, trained in IP, who would act as a legal body specifically on this issue, negotiating with companies via a licensing agent, on a case-by-case basis.

And the Maasai “brand” is not only valuable from a cultural stand point, but also has significant monetary worth.  It has been suggested that if the Maasai “brand” were owned by a corporation, it would be worth more than USD10 million (GBP6.6 million) a year — perhaps even “tens of millions”, according to Ron Layton, the founder and head of Light Years IP.

Whether any IP protection is available to the Maasai tribe in practice is a whole different ball game.  The stumbling block with the Maasai seeking to trademark its name and images is that, according to Light Years IP, about 80 companies around the world are already using either the Maasai image or name.  These include a range of accessories called Masai made for Land Rover and Masai Barefoot Technology, which makes speciality trainers.  Louis Vuitton also has a Masai line, which includes beach towels, hats, scarves and duffle bags.

The route that the Maasai will take, if any, is still uncertain.  It may be that instead of formal IP protection, they secure a voluntary code to govern the use of their cultural and intellectual property.  A voluntary code may be a powerful tool in this case as it could name and shame those companies who don’t sign up.

This story is another example of how people and companies in emerging markets are becoming increasingly aware of  brand monetization.  As awareness increases, established brands might find themselves having to negotiate IP licences to use iconic references and designs in their advertising campaigns or product lines, or they might face the risk of negative PR and damaging their reputation with the savvy consumer who is placing greater value on corporate conscience and behaviour.