The world's two Mercks squabble over who gets to be a household name

For nearly 100 years, Merck ($MRK) and Merck KGaA have been independent entities, but their shared name has led to confusion, sniping and even legal fracas. Now the two former relatives are working behind closed doors to smooth things over, Bloomberg reports, but don't expect either to bend much on the issue of identity.

Typifying the problem: Last week, protesters flooded the entrance to a U.K. Merck outpost to decry the company's lobbying efforts in Africa. But they were knocking on the doors to Germany's Merck KGaA, not the U.S. Merck, which goes by MSD outside North America. They have since apologized.

As Merck KGaA CEO Karl-Ludwig Kley told Bloomberg, this has long been a problem, as the size and global reach of his company's American cousin leads to market confusion. And the German outfit has hardly been shy about asserting its brand, going to court to get the rights to a "Merck" Facebook page and vying with its competitor for ownership of the .merck Internet domain.

But the two are still on speaking terms, and execs are mulling ways to avoid confusion without stepping on anyone's sense of self. Northwestern marketing professor Timothy Calkins told Bloomberg that the two might want to look to Abbott Laboratories ($ABT) and AbbVie ($ABBV) for guidance. After a 2013 split, Abbott's spinout took a name that both hearkened to its heritage and suggested an independent future.

So who's going to ditch the family name, then? With years of hard-won branding under their belts, it's unlikely either contender is going to willfully give up on a household name, and Kley told Bloomberg his company won't be shy about pursuing legal action to preserve "the real Merck."

"For me it's not imaginable that the Merck family, which has had the Merck name for 350 years, forgets about their name and the name of the company," Kley said. "After all, we are Merck in practically all countries around the world."

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