It was a Monday morning at Motley HQ in early 2020 when a direct message popped up on our instagram from one of our customers. It was a picture of a ring. One that looked eerily like one of our bestsellers.
“Hello. I wanted you to know that I saw a copy of your gorgeous blue L’Oiseau ring in & Other Stories today! I can’t believe it. I knew high street ripoff indy designers sometimes but this is so similar!”
The outline was a little rounder – the motif at its centre more of a splodge than a bird in flight. But the resemblance was unmistakable. It had appeared at & Other Stories, less than a month after our (original) version in collaboration with designer Estelle Dévé had come out.
Estelle wasn’t surprised when we told her. She said it was standard practice in the industry. Because jewellery designers aren’t well known to the broader public, large fashion houses monitor them for creative ideas, then use their work to fuel their product innovation.
We were horrified. Core to what we stand for – in fact, the essence of our model – is giving designers credit for their creativity.
But when we started speaking to people about it, we realised the problem’s much bigger than the jewellery industry, much bigger than the whole creative industry combined.
From flowers to food, growing brands with big ideas were getting ripped off by household names.
They say there’s no such thing as an original idea anymore. That inspiration is different to outright copying. But where’s the line?
When does inspiration become plagiarism?
Inspiration is a messy, wonderful space without defined boundaries. It’s one of the main drivers of human progress. The flipside is that it’s really hard to discern where inspiration becomes theft. That grey area ( both legally and morally) is where big established brands thrive. Even though it’s hard to pinpoint or prosecute, the line is definitely there.
Plagiarism is defined as the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as your own. How it’s defined legally is a little bit more complicated – patents, copyright law and intellectual property rights exist but are expensive to claim and even more expensive to pursue.
Sometimes plagiarism takes the form of a specific blend of ingredients.
Healthy food start-up Pollen & Grace raised the alarm when Marks & Spencer’s copied its Super Kale & Black Rice Immunity Box.
Pollen & Grace’s box and M&S’s Buddha Bowl had an almost identical combination of unique and unusual ingredients. It was a combination that didn’t exist anywhere else on the market. Worse, it popped up on M&S shelves after several meetings between the two companies – with Pollen & Grace thinking the retailer would be interested in working with them.
“As a small brand” says co-founder Stephanie Johnson, “what we have is our innovation and unique approach to product. What we don’t have is the distribution or budget of the big players. Instead of collaborating with us, M&S chose to copy us instead.”
And patents don’t help…
Sarah Brooks, co-founder of organic intimacy product brand The Yes Yes Company, knows a thing or two about unique products. Her background in petrochemicals and Drug Safety led her, together with her cofounder, to create a unique formulation for intimate lubricant – relating to the guar gum and linseed extract combination – which they patented internationally.
This didn’t stop a US competitor, who’ll remain anonymous, infringing this patent and copying the exact product. When The Yes Yes Company took legal action in the UK, the US company convinced several US distributors to stop importing and selling YES products.
Copying challenger brand products as an innovation funnel seems to be a well established tactic
Imitating smaller companies can be a larger company’s full innovation strategy. These companies will use large in-house product development teams to monitor indie brands for new and exciting products, often interacting with them on a personal level.Then, they leverage their massive production capabilities and manpower to copy at a larger (often cheaper) scale.
Coco Di Mama Founder Dan Land saw buying teams from other rivals visit their stores weekly. Almost two months after they launched a new Mac and Cheese dish in bespoke packaging, they saw Pret A Manger launch an almost identical replica – packaging included.
‘The problem is big in the food industry. You’ll have product development teams from big retailers order one of each item from a challenger, break down the ingredients then relaunch ‘their’ version a few months later.’
An employee for a leading player within the quick service restaurant industry told us they used to invite up and coming drinks brands in to pitch for shelf space – then copy their ingredient list and sometimes even branding design.
And copying marketing also seems to be rife
In an increasingly digital and visual world, things like branding and packaging have never been more important to customers. Huge effort and creativity goes into this.
At the peak of their trading, Coco di Mama noticed Gino di Campo, celebrity chef, open a new Quick Service restaurant – with exactly the same menu design. And when Sainsbury’s opened their “Fresh Kitchen” offering, many of the product names were exactly the same.
Shara Tochia, founder of hormone-wellness brand Dose, was shocked to see another brand, Daybreaker, who had a similar product rebrand their online business…Dose. Daybreaker also copied their tone of voice and messaging – lifting the phrase ‘hacking happiness’ directly from them. Like Pollen & Grace, Shara had also already been in touch with this company about a corporate partnership – they knew each other well.
They say imitation is flattery, and bigger multinationals have used this to their advantage in their marketing – ref KFC’s above the line campaign in homage to paltry (or should we say poultry) imitations by competitors.
But smaller brands don’t have the capability or distribution to be flattered. Flattery doth not revenue make.
Sometimes suppliers can be culprits
The Yes Yes Company Ltd is no stranger to being copied. Another UK brand came onto the UK scene, and got a huge deal with Boots, the UK’s largest chemist. The problem? They used nearly the same raw materials, almost identical packaging with soil association logo and colour – and critically, used the same manufacturer as the Yes Yes Company Ltd to enable this.
Within the same year, The Yes Yes Company Ltd discovered their New Zealand distributors had copied the mirror image of their website including their copy, and were selling direct to consumers.
In a digital age, imitation is getting easier and easier.
The law isn’t built to protect start ups
When the Yes Yes Company Ltd looked into legal action to defend their patent in USA, they were shocked to discover it is usual to immediately retaliate by counter-suing, typically resulting in a long expensive and US court case. This stopped The Yes Yes Company Ltd proceeding further – they just couldn’t afford the cost of a law suit.
Confronting the copiers doesn’t seem to work much
Dose’s attempts to get in touch with Higher Dose were first ignored, then treated with an aggressive response.
Without the distribution and budget of M&S, Pollen & Grace were ignored until they took to the press. The emails Pollen & Grace received in response to their requests for communication were aggressive and condescending. They’re still pushing for the product to be pulled.
The difficulty of proving and pinpointing plagiarism means there’s plenty of room for shutting down conversations before anyone can even engage in them. And with the distribution capability of big retailers like M&S, it can be really hard to even get the original product seen by customers. Often, people won’t even know they’re buying a rip-off, and copycats can be so well executed it’s impossible to tell the difference at a glance.
So what can you do?
If you’re Brewdog, that is. Then get your imitation product sold by your copier. Then plant some trees.
2. Lobby those in power
Sarah Brooks has been lobbying the government to support smaller businesses with patent defense support – with limited traction. But in order to support small business’ IP, the financial infrastructure around it must be supported too. Setting up a new business is hard work. Setting up a new business and fighting a legal battle with a company a hundred times your size is near impossible.
3. Call it out
Pollen & Grace went to social media and the press to call out M&S. While it’s an effective awareness-raising tool, headlines and trending hashtags move quickly. Often, it can be a flash in the pan that does little in the long run.
4. Give credit where credit’s due
At Motley, we believe you should pay people for their ideas. Motley was built to get everyone access to unique design and credit our designers for the amazing talent they bring. Because they get ripped off all the time.
5. Do it better
While larger companies might have the manpower they don’t have the passion or creativity to do what you do. As Dan Land said, “they could try and copy us – but they couldn’t match us on quality, service or brand”.
And if you’ve done brilliance once, you can do it again. So here’s a shout out to all the start ups, challengers and new groundbreakers genuinely disrupting in their space
So we encourage you to call it out too.
Do you have a story of copycat culture? Let our founder know at firstname.lastname@example.org