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What’s in a name? Plenty

Sneaky Pete’s CEO feels his unique drink product trumps its common name

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Sneaky Pete’s CEO Pete Stilianessis loves his company’s name.
Sneaky Pete’s CEO Pete Stilianessis loves his company’s name. - (AARON HOUSTON)

Sneaky Pete's is the name of a lakeside bar in Lewisville, Texas. There's a Sneaky Pete's holster manufacturer based out of Brookhaven, N.Y., and a Sneaky Pete's hot dog shop in Birmingham, Ala.

Pete Stilianessis, who lives in Passaic County, knows them all because his company, Sneaky Pete's Oat Beverage, is right there among a number of businesses around the country that pop whenever you do an online search for “Sneaky Pete.”

And he thinks that's great.

Sneaky Pete's Oat Beverage is among the first companies to appear, so Stilianessis figures the name confusion could be a good thing. After all, what's so bad if someone searching for hot dogs in Birmingham learns about his growing company?

Others disagree.

What about those customers who lose their way in the sea of entities with all-too-similar names? And how do you protect your brand when your name is up for grabs?

This is what the Internet has done to small businesses. Competition is no longer the store down the street or even the next town over; the Internet has created a climate in which even the smallest of companies are global, in a sense. And the potential for imitation and the infringement of precious trademarks looms large.

David Kohane, chair of the intellectual property department at Cole Schotz in Hackensack, said that globalization complicates the trademark process.

“Nowadays, it's much more likely that brand owners with similar names will at least run into each other on the Internet,” Kohane said. “If you have a website, anyone in the world can find it, see it, and that causes all sorts of interesting issues in the trademark world because trademarks are all about confusion.”

Stilianessis feels the uniqueness of his product will help trump for the ubiquitous nature of his company's name.

The 45-year-old former Marine developed Sneaky Pete's Oat Beverage from an old family recipe. Oats are the key ingredient, Stilianessis said. And even though you can't taste those oats, the benefits are there. Each 12-ounce bottle contains 40 calories and 3 grams of fiber.

“It's really the only healthy beverage out there for you,” Stilianessis said. “Water cleans you. This actually promotes heart health.”

Sneaky Pete's Oat Beverage is now available in more than 5,000 stores across the country. The company landed a test with 56 Target stores in October, and Stilianessis expects to pull in more than $1 million in revenues by the end of this year — more than twice last year's performance.

And for all his willingness to share his brand name, Stilianessis understands the importance of protecting his product.

Stilianessis keeps his family recipe under lock and key — a trade secret like the recipe for Coca-Cola. To protect his brand, he has spent tens of thousands of dollars getting as many brand names and slogans trademarked as he could.

“I couldn't even give you the list because it's so long,” he said. “You have to (trademark) these days because there's so many people out there trying to do the wrong thing.”

That's why Patrali Chatterjee, a professor at Montclair State University's School of Business, cautions entrepreneurs against building their brands around common names or phrases.

“What happens with a lot of business owners and a lot of brand developers is we fall in love with our product, and we associate it with names that we hold dear,” Chatterjee said.

“You want to make the brand relate to the product or relate to the benefits of the product, to the purpose of the product or to your target market for the product, and then play upon words to make it distinctive,” she added. “That makes it strong and difficult to copy.”

Stilianessis said he is certainly guilty of choosing a name close to his heart. It reminds him of when he was a child and used to sneak in to watch his grandfather make the oat beverage he's now turned into a nationwide brand. But it also relates to the way he's able to “sneak” healthy ingredients into the drink without having it taste unpleasantly healthy, he said.

“I'm proud of the name,” he said. “Brand awareness is what's going to make us work.”

E-mail to: maryj@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @mjohns422

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