We thought it was about time to share something with GFG blog readers.
It’s a story that’s been running for a while, but today seems like a really good day to put it in the public domain.
This week, we made a third party observation to the Intellectual Property Office about a pending trademark application.
We would have loved to lodge a formal opposition to the trademark application, but even with the 50p piece we just found down the back of a sofa at GFG Towers, we couldn’t cobble together the money required, so we’re relying on the IPO to read our letter and apply some common sense.
Back in 2008, a young, fresh faced Charles Cowling launched the GFG on the world. The website was a labour of love, and he put days and weeks and months of unpaid work into creating a wonderful information resource for people who needed to arrange a funeral. He also started the long running GFG Blog which now boasts over 3,000 posts and opinion pieces.
Funeralworld took notice, and the GFG rapidly acquired a following of all kinds of people, with many lively discussions ensuing in comments on various posts. The website grew in popularity too, with large numbers of people visiting it for advice and information about funerals.
The media liked us too. Charles became a regular on TV and in the papers. (We’ve tried to keep the momentum going – we are frequently approached for comment on coverage of funeral related subjects, and have been referenced and quoted in The Times, The Guardian, The Independent, Metro and other newspapers in recent years, along with interview coverage on BBC TV, ITV, RT, and multiple radio stations.)
Anyway, all seemed well with the world, so much so that in 2011, the Good Funeral Guide became the Good Funeral Guide CIC, a not for profit social enterprise company and was incorporated as such at Companies House. You can read our Community Interest Statement here from page 18 in the filing of ‘Incorporation’.
Our stated purpose is to ‘support, empower and represent the interests of dying and bereaved people living in the UK’, and we take this responsibility very seriously. If we see something that we think is wrong, or that is detrimental to the interests of dying or bereaved people, we say it. Loudly, and often.
This has gained us something of a reputation and brought us a lot of good friends who share our views, but also attracted less welcome attention in the form of occasional threats of legal action from the companies or organisations we have criticised. That’s kind of to be expected – speaking truth to power tends to annoy powerful players who have been called out for doing something we don’t think is ethical or right.
Sometimes we get approached by very nice representatives from the organisations concerned, offering us coffee or dinner or a chance to meet up and find out more about how their employers aren’t really the bad guys we portray them as.
These overtures are always flattering, but never accepted, which means we now have the reputation of being difficult and unfriendly among a certain cohort. (We’re not at all, as anyone who knows us can confirm, but we are passionate and protective about our independence; we hold it as a precious and rare thing in the arena in which we operate).
So, to cut a long story short, the GFG has jogged along since it became a CIC, just about staying afloat financially and maintaining an extraordinarily high listing on Google entirely because of the calibre of the traffic we get to our website. Unsurprisingly, we’ve never had the cash to spare for search engine optimisation, so our high visibility online is entirely due to you, dear reader!
The wonderful thing about being high up on Google is that our impartial and accurate advice is findable by everyone, and tens of thousands of people make use of it every year. We’d like to think that we’re helping to inform and empower people all over the country and as a consequence, enabling large numbers of people to get a better experience organising a funeral than they would otherwise have had.
It’s a responsibility that we take very seriously, and we are immensely proud of the GFG and all that it stands for – and I know I speak for all of the directors of the GFG, both former and current when I say this.
There is nothing like the Good Funeral Guide, it’s unique, and irreplaceable. It’s a jewel. It is wonderful, wonderful entity to be involved with because it has integrity running through its DNA. And in today’s world, this is a rare thing.
Free, expert information for anyone needing to make arrangements for a funeral is something that is very important indeed, we are sure you’ll agree.
And were there to be an attempt to diminish the standing and reach of the Good Funeral Guide, we’re equally sure that you’ll agree that this would be a very, very bad thing.
Well, it appears that something of just this kind of nature has been underway. Whether deliberate or not. It might just be a coincidence.
Cast your eyes over the chronology and see what you think.
- Back in 2012, a company was incorporated at Companies House on behalf of two directors, Ed Gallois and Kevin Homeyard. Funeralzone operated an internet funeral director comparison site, and many funeral directors will be familiar with it. In fact, many funeral director websites still invite visitors to ‘Read our reviews on Funeralzone’.
- Over time, a number of funeral directors and others invested in shares in the company. The latest list of shareholders can be found in the Confirmation Statement filed on 5thAugust at Companies House here.
- Sometime between July 2017 and July 2018, Dignity PLC invests at least £666,000 in Funeral Zone Ltd. The investment could have been circa £1 million – on page 102 of Dignity’s 2017 Annual Report and Accounts, the following reference is made ‘During the period, the Group invested £1 million in a non-controlling interest in a business’.
- 1 June 2018 the Competition and Markets Authority launches a market study into the funeral sector
- Between August 2018 and December 2018, Dignity increases its investment in Funeral Zone by a further £5 million. Page 120 of Dignity’s 2018 Annual Report and Accounts states: “As a result of the last investment, the Group has a 23.8 per cent investment. Funeral Zone Limited is a UK online funeral resource for funeral directors and clients and has been invested in for its intellectual property opportunities. The Group holds less than 2 per cent of the voting rights of Funeral Zone Limited but is deemed to have significant influence principally due to holding a right to appoint a board member who would hold a 25 per cent representation on the Board of Directors and therefore has the power to participate in the financial and operating policy decisions. The Group also hold a call option over a further 44.4 per cent of shares.
- At the end of the period, the Group held an investment of £nil million (2017: £1.0 million) in a non-controlling interest in a business. An additional investment of £0.5 million was made in August 2018 and the fair value was deemed to be cost. Following a further investment of £4.5 million in December 2018 it was concluded that the Group had significant influence over the investment and this has now been accounted for and reclassified as investments in associated undertakings”
- By January 2019 therefore, Dignity had invested £6 million in Funeral Zone Ltd. This investment is in a company described on the same page of Dignity’s 2018 Annual Reports and Accounts as not making profit: “Funeral Zone Limited had revenue of £3,000 and a total loss for the period since acquisition of £177,000. The Group’s share of loss for the period therefore amounted to £42,000 which has not been shown on the face of the Group’s consolidated income statement.”
- 29 November 2018 the Competition and Markets Authority publishes their Interim Report and consultation on whether to make a market investigation reference.
- November 2018 Dignity initiates and funds a round table meeting at Westminster as referenced in the Chief Executive statement in the 2018 Annual Report and Accounts page 18 – ‘At the end of 2018 we initiated a round table discussion and invited the CMA and other representatives from the funeral sector, co-operating together to try and find a solution.’ This group will go on to name itselftheFuneral Service Consumer Standards Review.
- 1 December 2018 a third director of Funeral Zone Ltd is appointed. Paul Webb, whose occupation is described as business consultant, joins Ed Gallois and Kevin Homeyard as a co-director. Mr. Webb’s LinkedIn account cites a current role as Business Development Executive at Funeral Homes Ltd, an ‘Acquisitive Funeral Business Group’, and, incorrectly, a second current role as Managing Director of Anderson Maguire Funeral Group Ltd (Companies House indicates Mr. Webb resigned from this position on 23rd November 2016).
- 8 January 2019 a new company, ‘Funeral Arranger Limited’, was incorporated at Companies House. Ed Gallois is named as the sole shareholder and managing director.
- 14 January 2019 a Change of Name notice was filed at Companies House. ‘Funeral Arranger Limited’ changes its name to ‘Funeral Guide’.
- 14 January 2019 Funeral Zone Ltd applies to trademark the name ‘Funeral Guide’at the Intellectual Property Office.
- 14 January 2019 the domain name funeralguide.co.uk changes hands. Formerly owned by Mark Brown and used to sell funeral plans, the new owner is Funeral Zone Ltd. (We wrote about Mr. Brown’s attempts to get his funeral plan flogging business off the ground in a blog post here back in 2017).
- 28March 2019 the CMA announces a Market Investigation into the funeral sector.
- 10April 2019 Funeral Zone Ltd applies to trademark the name ‘Arranger’at the IPO.
- 16 April 2019 Funeral Zone Ltd applies to trademark the name ‘Memoria’ at the IPO.
- 10April 2019 the IPO refuses the trademark application for the name ‘Funeral Guide’.
- 14May 2019 Dignity warns of reduced profits.
- 19 June 2019 First meeting of the Funeral Service Consumer Standards Review Steering Committee. Independently chaired, the committee is made up of ten representatives. Of these individuals, four have business connections with Dignity:
- Andrew Judd – Dignity Director of Funeral Operations
- Ed Gallois, Funeral Zone Ltd (23% Dignity owned)
- James Daley – Fairer Finance (commissioned by Dignity to produce a 2018 report into funeral plans)
- Jon Levett – National Association of Funeral Directors (funded by membership including 826 Dignity branches)
- 24 June 2019 Funeral Zone Ltd applies to trademark a figurative version including the words ‘Funeral Guide’ with the IPO.
- 28June 2019 ‘Arranger’is registered as a trademark belonging to Funeral Zone at the IPO.
- 5 July 2019 the figurative ‘Funeral Guide’trademark application is published on the IPO website.
- 16 July 2019 an independent funeral director who had been publicly critical of the investment by Dignity into Funeral Zone receives a letter of claim ‘pursuant to the pre-action protocol for defamation claims’ from Funeral Zone’s solicitors.
- 17 July 2019 the Funeral Zone comparison site announces it has changed its name to ‘Funeral Guide’. All internet traffic to funeralzone.co.uk is now redirected to www.funeralguide.co.uk. All website content and social media profiles are changed to reflect the new name and branding. Sponsored facebook posts and twitter tweets appear to publicise this news.
- 17 July 2019 new Dignity ‘pay per click’ advertisements are noted at the top of the results for the search terms ‘Funeral Guide’ or ‘Good Funeral Guide’.
- 18 July 2019 a series of 10 free evenings of dinner and drinks for funeral directors is announced around the country showcasing Arranger software. Arranger software is owned by Funeral Zone Ltd.
- 12 August 2019 an article appears in the Times claiming ‘Funeral Directors are to be given restaurant style ratings as the industry battles claims of over-charging and inconsistent standards.’
- 13 August 2019 The FSCSR Secretariat sends an e-mail, purportedly to all those involved in the FSCSR, stating that the information in the Times was incorrect.
- 15 August 2019 a funeral director posts a photo on Facebook announcing ‘Pearson funeral service does it again – 5 star award’. The image is of window stickers showing five gold stars and with the text ‘We have been rated by Funeral Guide, an independent review website’.
For context, back in October 2016, Dignity’s share price was £28.71.
It has fallen consistently since then, closing on Friday 30thAugust 2019 down 83% on that October price, at £4.69
We also note Funeral Guide has amassed an ENORMOUS following on social media.
At the time of writing, they boast 12,200 followers on Twitter and a massive 52,368 followers on Facebook. SO many people choosing to follow a funeral comparison site. (For comparison, the GFG Twitter account has 3,341 followers on Twitter, and 1,281 followers on Facebook.)
Oddly, and unlike the GFG followers, those following Funeral Guide on social media are almost completely passive and silent.
Funeral Guide’s posts are rarely commented on and occasionally liked by just a handful of individuals. But to the average person looking at the Funeral Guide profiles on social media, they look like an enormously important and influential organisation with thousands of people waiting for their next post.
We know what we think about all of these shenanigans.
Which is why we have lodged our observations about the attempt to trademark a name so very similar to ours by an organisation that now cites itself as the ‘UK’s definitive online funeral resource’ with the IPO.
We’ve also dropped a note to Companies House about the registration of a company name so like our own. And passed a lot of documentation to the Competition and Markets Authority.
But ultimately, that’s about all we can do.
If we happened to have had £6 million pounds appear on our balance sheets in the last year or so, that would cover a whole lot of expensive fancy lawyers were we to try to defend our position by taking a legal route.
But sadly, 50p won’t go very far at all.
All we have is a public platform to share our concerns.