Copycats and ketchup fraud: for brands, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery
Brands often deal with fakes and imitations with the cold, hard response of litigation – but recently KFC, Lululemon, and Heinz have tried a more playful approach. Ella Munn of agency Influencer investigates.
Should brands embrace their imitators, rather than attacking them? / Andre Mouton via Unsplash
Dupes flood backstreet markets across the world, unapologetically parading as the real deal with glaring errors and ‘do you think people will notice?’ slogans. And while we might find the likes of Adadis and Calvin Klain funny, big-name brands have hurled lawsuits over copyright infringements for decades.
Today, though, a few pioneering brands are taking a different approach, using poor attempts at replication to bolster their own position as market leaders, prove the superiority of their products, and take an ‘if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em’ mentality to entertaining consumers and driving brand loyalty.
This type of marketing takes confidence – borne out of faith in brand heritage, conviction about product advantage, or absolute clarity of market position.
Brands lucky enough to be in one of these positions (and smart enough to leverage it) have deployed different tactics to combat copycats and capitalize on their advantage.
Appreciate imitation as flattery (and thank them for their kindness)
During a recent trip to Colombia, I saw a familiar sign for KFC and right next door, a dupe. A neighbor who hadn’t even bothered to differentiate their signage other than to spell it out ‘Kentucky Fried Chicken’, sat in a face-off with the global conglomerate. While KFC could take legal action against forgers, instead on a global stage they took a different approach.
In OOH and press ads, KFC paid homage to small-time rivals, sharing a full A to Z of triple-letter-named chicken shops followed by the line, “Guys, we’re flattered.” KFC reminds us that though there are many imitators out there, there’s only one place to get the Colonel’s original recipe chicken.
Following on from the 2018 FCK bucket, the tone of this ad perfectly aligns with the brand’s aims to stand out in the market. The lesson? See copycats, acknowledge them, and throw it back in their faces to remind consumers once and for all that there’s only one space at the top.
Back the superiority of your product
Scroll through TikTok, and there’s a dupe for seemingly everything. Creator-curated storefronts full of dupes dominate social platforms and while some small businesses take defensive action, activewear giant Lululemon took an unconventional approach.
Lululemon’s Align leggings are a bestseller, but at $98 a pair it's no surprise that customers have been hunting for budget-friendly alternatives to the cult favorite. When #lululemondupe amassed 185m views on TikTok, the brand opted to back their product, and challenged consumers to “feel the difference” for themselves in the very first dupe swap.
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Customers were invited to a one-day pop-up to try on a pair of Align leggings, appreciate their superiority over alternatives, and swap a pair of their low-quality dupes for free. The brand hoped that the long-term work done building their culture and community around fitness and yoga (and the quality of their product) would outshine dupes. The gamble seems to have paid off.
Not only did people start queuing at 6 am, hitting capacity before the event even opened, but half of the attendees were new customers; half were under 30; and content about the swap went viral. While the popup will have cost Lululemon serious cash, the top three organic videos amassed two million views on TikTok.
Play on your brand positioning as the OG category leader
Heinz ketchup doesn’t just have copycats, but undercover glass bottles sitting in chip shops and restaurants parading as the real deal.
In March, Heinz turned that customer insight into a full-fledged ad campaign, releasing a series of posters featuring illicit-looking shots of restaurant staff filling Heinz bottles with cheaper ketchup in the campaign ‘Even when it isn’t Heinz, it has to be Heinz’. Heinz recognized that restaurants attempting to fool customers through 'ketchup fraud' was a practice they couldn't stop, so decided to lean into it with a surprisingly gritty ad campaign. And people loved it.
Fake products and dupes aren’t something brands tend to give recognition to, let alone shout about in their advertising. Here Heinz turns the issue of counterfeiting on its head, showing that ketchup isn't just a consumer commodity; Heinz is the brand the public wants.
Whether you regard these activities as nice PR stunts or smart strategic defense of brand equity, what can we learn from them?
If you can’t beat them, join them. Mocking competitors in a playful and tactful way not only connects with the relatable experiences of consumers, but by owning it, lets them know you’re in on the joke too.
Back yourself. You don’t need to give them out for free, but if you know you’ve got a superior product, give consumers the chance to feel the difference for real, in person.
Give people a good story. Building a campaign out of a real consumer insight allows you to authentically connect with consumers through a ‘truth’ that they recognize. Communicating in this way not only defends your position as a market leader (showing the inferiority of the wannabe), but builds your reputation by reminding people of the superiority of your own brand.
Heinz or not, ketchup should always be kept in the fridge.
Responding playfully to imitation is not an easy path to take but we are starting to see that those brands confident in their own market position can act in a way that ultimately turns threat into opportunity.
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