Truman Capote's wonderful story of Holly Golightly a young girl with big dreams eating Danish pastries at 5 AM in the morning outside Tiffany's, New York's most famous jeweller has become a timeless image of quality and elegance. Delivered by a delicate waiflike Audrey Hepburn, the love story and its Moon River soundtrack along with Tiffany’s distinctive colour must be worth millions to this Fifth Avenue jewellery store.
Audrey would have been delighted to know last week that a US court ruled in her much-loved brand’s favour that Costco has ripped off Tiffany's for $19.3 million by copying a classic diamond ring design. The discount retailer had been selling "Tiffany style" engagement rings, with a six-clasp setting in store with a displayed message that says specifically "Tiffany engagement rings" leading customers to believe they were buying the real Tiffany ring at steep discounts. Tiffany have been using the setting since 1886 when the company bought the patent from a New Jersey jeweller. The style is so popular it's become synonymous with the high-end jewellery retailer. Tiffany sued in the court ruled that it's entitled to more than $19 million. $11.1 million which is triple the loss incurred from Costco plus interest at $8.25 million in punitive damages. Though Costco only sold about 2500 fake rings, the real purpose of Tiffany's suit was to protect its brand value and cachet as an international luxury retailer.
But what happens when the original designer does not have the resources of a company like Tiffany’s? You see cases such as the ongoing saga between fast fashion retailer Zara and independent artists. Zara was recently facing criticism yet again for allegedly copying the designs of Tuesday Bassen, an independent artist based in Los Angeles. Zara is not the only company that has come under fire for supposedly stealing intellectual property. Brands such as Urban Outfitters and Forever 21 have been repeatedly accused of plagiarism. The challenge here is that many countries, primarily the US, classify fashion as purely functional (and therefore not protected by copyright law). This allows fast fashion retailers to copy high end garments, right down to the same stitch, with little to no repercussions.
This is not only happening internationally. In our own backyard there was a good example of plagiarism inflicted by Fonterra over Lewis Road with its dairy products. A David and Goliath story, which amounted to nothing, but I would've thought Fonterra’s designer could have done better by doing something new in the category, as opposed to being a follower. It's not as if they don't have the resources.
These instances of copying, amounts to laziness and large firms should be able to enter into independent royalty arrangements with small niche designers in compatible partnership given they spot something they like. Mistakes do happen in big companies, but many of the recent events in the fashion industry in particular suggest to me that when it happens more than a dozen times in one season it's clearly intentional.
This is very disheartening for young designers who we need to nurture in our communities. When you're looking for real originality, it usually doesn't often come on salary. The real hot designers are not about sausage factories iterating yet another version to keep their jobs. Everyone talks about disruption, but it takes a genius to develop something truly original. For this they should be well rewarded and recognized.
So how do you stop people from copying your product? Some of course have given up and imitation is impossible to stop. However, there are some legal options such as copyrights, patents and trademarks which can hold the latent replication. Unless you are global player the financial resources needed for this can be crippling and it still doesn't guarantee you will shut down the pretenders.
Can you do something? Yes, there are small things you can do which don't cost a lot of money to minimise the risk and ensure you have a brand that will create loyal and supportive customers.
Make sure your suppliers are not selling your ideas to similar customers to you. Your audit trail from your supplier should be back to back in terms of output, to ensure your product is not being sold out the back door rebadged.
Make sure your branding is unique, distinctive enough in the category owning, a special name and font, dedicated colour palette, and you are communicating clearly your point of difference with a fresh tone of voice.
In defending your brand, you would have to prove that the copycat product is deliberately out to confuse the customer into believing that the similar brand they usually reach for product is somehow actually connected economically to you.
We are now seeing the worst of brand morality on the horizon as major supermarket chains such as Aldi in Europe plagiarise unashamedly, replicating existing brands and shirt tailing the success and hard work of these well-established market leaders who've spent millions over many years building their names.
If you are walking down the aisle looking to buy your regular dishwashing liquid, come across something very close and of course cheaper, you just might think that for that price it's worth a try and just maybe the company has developed something new? And of course, as soon as the customer realises that this product is as good as the one they were paying for at a higher price before, that’s the end of your loyalty. Through allowing your designs to go unchallenged you’ve subsidised the discounter saving them years of hard earned recognition. Copycat products will continue to evolve and of course will not be right every time. Aldi are becoming masters at this disguise in Europe and until the big brands take some action the slope will continue to be slippery.
"Elegance is the only beauty that never fades" – Audrey Hepburn