NYU Langone sues competitor Northwell over 'confusingly similar' purple ads

NYU Langone Health System is suing to block competitor Northwell Health from running ads the former said are mimicking its long-established color palettes and encroaching on its reputation.

The case filed last week points to Northwell’s increasing use of the color purple, which NYU Langone said has been “closely associated” with its parent university for more than 150 years.

Subsidiaries including NYU Langone Health System have used the color outside of facilities and in advertisements “for decades,” the system wrote in its complaint, and have multiple registered trademark images that use the color.

In response, Northwell’s marketing lead said NYU Langone’s claiming ownership of the color “is nothing short of preposterous” and that his organization stands behind its “distinct branding.”  

An image including in NYU Langone's complaint comparing the visual appearances of ads run by competitor Northwell Health
An image included in NYU Langone's complaint filing comparing the appearances of its advertisements and those of competitor Northwell Health (NYU Langone Health System (NYU Langone V. Northwell))

NYU Langone said it codified the use of the color purple, along with preferred accent color combinations and typography choice, in an internal advertising style guide developed in 2017 and used through today. The system has deployed that brand style across physical and digital marketing campaigns that generate over 400 million advertising impressions per year—and for which it’s spent $25 million per year purchasing ad space.

Northwell had employed its own visually distinct advertising styles until 2019, when NYU Langone expanded its presence into the Long Island market where Northwell has a substantial market presence, according to the filing. At that time, NYU Langone alleged that Northwell “appears to have changed its approach to advertising and marketing its healthcare services.”

Northwell, NYU Langone alleged, “intentionally” copied its predominantly purple advertising “in an apparent effort to trade off of the goodwill and reputation of NYU Langone,” the health system wrote in the complaint.

The alleged mimicry extended to accent colors, typeface and layout, all of which NYU Langone said in the complaint “convey a confusingly similar overall look and feel and suggest that Northwell is affiliated with, sponsored by, or endorsed by NYU Langone (and it is not).”

NYU Langone wrote that its hospitals have a strong reputation for excellence as measured by top performance ratings it has received from third-party groups that rank healthcare providers for consumers, such as U.S. News & World Report. It also noted that some of Northwell’s ads include “false and misleading claims” by suggesting that some Northwell hospitals ranked higher than NYU Langone’s on these lists.

In an emailed statement, Northwell Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Ramon Soto said that “NYU Langone’s claim that it owns the color purple for healthcare services is nothing short of preposterous.”

“Northwell Health is proud of its distinct branding, which uses a wide variety of colors, and how it leverages research, education and clinical excellence to differentiate from others in the market,” he said. “Northwell is much more than just a color in our ads.” 

NYU Langone wrote in the complaint that its legal counsel had delivered a cease and desist to Northwell regarding the advertising but had not received a formal response.

NYU Langone is seeking a permanent injunction that bars Northwell from continuing to use similar advertisements and requires the system to remove existing ads and issue corrective advertising. It also seeks damages, attorneys’ fees and other relief.