Food manufacturing giant Sanitarium risks tarnishing its brand image through its dispute with a South Island shopkeeper whose store stocks the British equivalent of Weet-Bix, a branding expert says.

Representatives of the firm this month visited English Bob's Emporium in Richmond, near Nelson, and demanded that the shop - which caters to expats from the UK - stop selling Weetabix, the English version of the cereal.

Sanitarium general manager Pierre van Heerden has said selling Weetabix in New Zealand breached a trademark held by the Auckland-based company and its Weet-Bix brand could not be sold in Britain for similar reasons.

In a letter sent last week, Sanitarium told Bob Wren, the store's owner, that unless he handed over his stocks of the cereal he could face court action.


But James Bickford, New Zealand managing director of global branding agency Interbrand, said that although Sanitarium had a right to protect its intellectual property, its "heavy handed" approach in dealing with Wren meant it risked alienating consumers.

"It's a classic David and Goliath, or Bob and Goliath [dispute] and everyone knows where consumers' hearts and minds will go - they will go to Bob," Bickford said.

He said the dispute came at a particularly bad time for Sanitarium, which has been forced to stop making Marmite due to earthquake damage at its Christchurch factory. Stocks of the popular yeast spread have run dry across the country.

"In brand management terms I would be saying, 'Let's just leave Bob for the time being and get on with getting our house in order'," Bickford said.

"It's never a good thing for a big corporate to be publicly taking on a little guy."

Wren has accused the food manufacturer of "corporate bullying", but van Heerden said last night that Sanitarium liked to "resolve these matters amicably with the people involved".

He said the company had approached big retailers in the past over trademark issues.

"So it is not about big or small, it is about treating all breaches of our trademark in the same way," he said. "One can't treat the stores differently, as that creates a precedent."


Sanitarium, which is wholly owned by New Zealand's Seventh Day Adventist Church, forced Onehunga's English Corner Shop to stop selling Weetabix in 2010.