As soon as a brand starts to enjoy success, it is imitated: copies appear and multiply. The competitive advantages offered by innovation are short-term only, and this is why today’s brand is built on the continual flow of innovation. Ideas, concepts and products can all be the subject of imitation.
For example, shortly after the launch of a peach-flavoured lowalcohol drink named Carlton, targeting the top end of the range, lower-cost competitors such as Claridge began to appear. Competition is even more intense where it applies to intellectual property: this includes patents and designs, but also trade dress, and even trademarks (the name or pictorial image of the brand). This imitation stems from producers and retailers whose imitation of the leader is the first step towards building a store brand.
It also comes from counterfeiting. Top-of the- range brands such as Nike and Adidas, as well as various luxury brands, are directly targeted in this way. The markets and bazaars of foreign countries are filled with fake Cartier watches and Ralph Lauren polo shirts.
No sooner has a Dior or Chanel fashion show finished than Asian factories begin to reproduce their designs, introducing them into parallel distribution channels even before the brand itself has sent out stock. More dangerous still is the practice of counterfeiting medicines or automobile spare parts, which can often deceive customers and potentially put lives at risk. Lastly, we have already discussed protection against brand imitations conducted by the brand’s own retailers.
Intellectual property must be defended and extended (for example, Harley-Davidson has patented the characteristic sound of its engines, as has Porsche). It is not our intention here to cover in a few lines a subject as important and strategic as trademark laws, particularly since, with the advent of globalisation, it is becoming obvious that not all countries have the same sensibilities when it comes to counterfeiting.
In China, South-East Asia, Morocco and Italy, a considerable number of micro-companies make a living in this way. It is always more or less directly linked to money laundering, and sometimes receives covert government protection. Such divergent attitudes allow brands that could not legally exist in the West (or any country that upholds intellectual property laws) to become established.
Everyone in Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai is familiar with the Crocodile store chain, an obvious imitation of the world-famous Lacoste brand, whose symbol since 1933 has been its famous crocodile. The Asian store chain has exploited lax local brand laws to position itself in Lacoste’s slipstream: it even goes so far as to boast in its slogan, ‘Enter the legend’.
The basic precautions to be taken in order to avoid losing protection rights for one’s brand are well known. For example, never use the trademark as a noun, but as an adjective: in other words, we should say a Budweiser beer, not just a Budweiser. Let us also add that if a brand colour is to be protected, it too requires protection within the company. Brand product lines are frequently segmented, which leads to the use of different colours to identify each segment. As a result, it becomes harder to maintain that a brand is characterized by any one single colour.
How should the brand respond to counterfeiting and imitation? First, we should identify the difference between the two types of attack. Counterfeiting is the identical, traitfor- trait imitation of the brand and its identifying components: it is unlawful in the most direct sense, and there is no need to provide evidence of customer confusion. It simply needs to be identified, and legal action taken. However, longer-term work is necessary in a number of countries where it is more than simply tolerated, and indeed often accepted:
Revealingly enough, the buyers themselves often own the original product.
This is what qualifies them as experts and lends status to the copy chosen for the quality of its resemblance. They know what they are talking about.
Preventive action with Western consumers in their country of origin takes the form of education. It needs to be pointed out that counterfeiting is linked to Mafia-style networks and the laundering of drug money. There is also a legal side: a consumer bringing back a counterfeit product is an accomplice, and is thus committing a crime punishable by law.
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