How to deal with copycats

Copycats are a bane for any business, large or small. A Wharton business journal calls it “an existential threat to any business.” Unfortunately, it’s a problem that persists and will only continue to persist. 

So what can small businesses do to counter copycats? In this video, I share advice that experts share on how to counter copycats. 

In early 2022, a Byron Bay-based small business owner, Sharnee Thorpe, spoke out about finding out that a retailer chain was selling picnic rugs very similar to those that she designed and selling through her small business for less than a third of the price. While the copycat product bore similarities to her designs, she could not legally hold the chain or anyone else accountable because it was not technically a forgery or a counterfeit of her product. Nonetheless, the price point affects her business.  

The best that Sharnee Thorpe, founder of Wandering Folk and designer of said picnic rugs, was to take to social media to talk to their over 100,000 followers on Instagram,  explain what had happened, and encourage her loyal clientele to continue patronising her products instead of the cheaper copycat.  

Wandering Folk isn’t the first, nor will they be the last small, independent business to fall victim to copycats. Here are three ways small businesses can do to help you counter copycats. 

Step #1: Be proactive 

The proactive first step is to legally protect your business and your products. Apply for patents, trademarks, and copyright. This is a route many tech companies take—think of Apple when they apply for patents for their products and designs. To do this, you’ll likely need the help of a lawyer. 

Step #2: Confront copycats 

Should you find copycat products in the market, some experts advise confronting the copycat and taking legal action. You may contact the company or business owner and ask them to stop copying your product. Consult your lawyer about options.  

But here are words of caution for the first two steps. The first two steps assume that you have a product or service that you can legally protect using patents and intellectual property rights. It also assumes that you have the resources to take legal action. As many business owners have learned, taking legal action can be very expensive.  

And in the case of Wandering Folk, despite what looks like a copycat product, there are many businesses with products that can be easily copied and with no legal recourse to protect them. This is prevalent in specific industries, such as fashion and apparel, toys and collectibles, optical media, and even personal care products. 

Another important caveat is that patents don’t last forever. For example, Lego’s original patent expired in 2011, which resulted in the proliferation of competitive brands that use Lego’s original brick design. So what did they do? 

Step #3: Keep innovating 

The best offence to copycats is to continue producing and selling superior products. While Lego tried to extend their patents, they eventually realised that to stay on top meant accepting that they needed to continue innovating their products. In doing so, they’ve managed to secure licenses from top brands, such as Star Wars, Disney, Harry Potter, and Marvel, to name a few. They’ve ventured into film and have also asked fans to develop design products for them through their crowdsourcing platform, Lego Ideas.  

Here’s another example of how a small business dealt with copycats. Cassey Ho a social media fitness entrepreneur behind various brands, including a fitness apparel and accessories brand, POPFLEX. Early designs and products of POPFLEX were repeatedly copied by big retailers and even small businesses. It was financially disastrous for her, especially when she was still trying to launch her brand.  

Like Lego, Ho realised that the best way to counter copycats is to continue innovating and developing new products and services that her customers will love. She focused on her customers and used their feedback to improve POPFLEX products. In doing so, she could design and come up with products that quickly sold out. She built and nurtured a community of loyal followers around her brand because she knew how to keep them happy.  

Today, POPFLEX is a brand carried by Target USA. Not only that, Ho and Target recently collaborated to release a special and exclusive line of plant-based protein powder—a product that she says her fans helped her create. 

In summary, small business owners have recourse in dealing with copycats. This requires being proactive and protecting your designs and formula using patents, trademarks, and copyright. Should you find a copycat in the market, you can take legal action against them. However, the best recourse is to continue innovating. 



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