In the chapter on ‘Brands and Their Copies’, Kronick writes:
I have to admit I felt mixed emotions this past week as I walked through the Yashow Market at Sanlitun. Something was missing.
It was the fake LV bags, fake Timberland shoes and fake Polo shirts. There were no counterfeit items to be had. The DVD stores were also short on anything new. We asked one of the pushy Yashow saleswomen what was going on. She told us, “Recently, we all have been chased”—meaning that a major crackdown is taking place. We got the same message at the DVD stores.
It amazes me how much impact the Chinese government can have when they want to, and it appears they were most effective last week. They were in the midst of devising new agreements with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), which is rumoured to have been the major influence behind the clean-up.
So why the mixed emotions? On the one hand, I have confidence that China is getting serious about intellectual property rights, one of the most burning issues impacting Chinese businesses today. On the other hand, I cannot deny the fun I have had witnessing ambitious entrepreneurs trying to capitalize on brand names for a profit.
These folks operate on many levels. There’s the 'straight-up copy that just doesn’t make it' approach, like the counterfeit Starbucks I once visited in Qingdao that had all of the colour schemes right, but was totally off on fonts, logo and everything else. They did sell coffee, but it was certainly not Starbucks. As you may know, the American coffeehouse chain is widely copied in China; there have been sightings of copycats such as 'Seayahi Coffee', 'Starbox Coffee' and, I kid you not, 'Starf#*ks.' Who is going to drink that coffee, I wonder?
Then there was the knock-off Olympic polo shirt I saw, back in 2007, that was one ring short of the iconic five-ringed Olympic logo. This shirt was a beauty—the counterfeiter had produced a very high-quality golf shirt, getting everything right but the rings. Finding this near-replica was a surprise as it was difficult to find any counterfeit Olympic goods in the lead-up to the 2008 Summer Games. Remember the Beijing Olympic 'running man' logo? That image was the domain of the Beijing government, so they guarded him as tightly as Hannibal Lector.
Next, there is the 'try to look and feel like the brand, but is clearly not the brand' approach. This is what you will usually see in Yashow Market: a handbag designed to look and feel nearly identical to an LV bag, yet the letters are different. The particular copy I saw was labelled GF. I also distinctly remember a black and yellow shoe that was clearly trying to pass as Nike, but at the top of the swoosh there was a round cone-like mouthpiece that made the logo look like a megaphone. Perhaps these particular fake Nikes were made for a cheerleader?
One of my favourites from a decade ago involved a copycat that was located right next door to the original. TGI Fridays, the American casual-dining chain, enjoyed great success with a restaurant located just off of the Third Ring Road; the entrepreneurial next-door neighbour tried to lure TGI Fridays customers away by naming his own restaurant 'Saturday’s', complete with trademark red-and-white decor. I never fell for the trick so I cannot comment on the food, but this certainly was worth a laugh.
There is also the 'steal the logo and put it on a totally different product' approach. If you are a crazy Apple fan and have all of their products, from the MacBook to the iPod to the iPad, why not extend your collection to include Apple-branded sneakers? I have not fact-checked this with Apple but I am relatively certain that the cheaply made linen hightops with the Apple logo were not part of Steve Jobs’ long-term strategy.
Another example of this approach, and one of my personal favourites, is the Ogilvy & Mather toothpick box, which was manufactured in a town called Yuecheng in Jiedong County, Guangdong province. The distributor's name is Beijing Ogilvy & Mather Kit Trade Center, which is the exact same name as the branding company I work for. I am pretty sure our founder didn’t travel to Jiedong County, so I don’t think it was us who copied the name of the toothpick manufacturer. The similarity of the names could be a coincidence, but I highly doubt it. It’s a bit of a sticky matter. We’re looking on the bright side, though—now we have our own branded toothpicks without even having to produce them.
Finally, there are the inventive entrepreneurs who, regardless of intention, have created goods that are very entertaining. I have seen everything from hats labelled with the 'Detroit Giants' to shirts which misspell the names of sports heroes, like the one that referred to the famed Argentinian striker Messi as 'Messy'.
My favourite, though, is a sweatshirt I saw on a local resident. It featured a monkey similar to the one affiliated with the popular brand Kipling. The T-shirt read: 'Smile Happiness Monkey'. It is this type of entrepreneur that gives me hope—the kind who sees a symbol and crafts a pithy statement that will bring a smile to even the biggest cynic. What makes me feel good is that China can clean up its intellectual property rights problem while continuing to turn out some beauties. 'Smile Happiness Monkey'.
'The Lighter Side of China' is available in China at The Bookworm in Beijing, airport
bookstores and online booksellers including Amazon, Dangdang and Tmall.com (Shanghai Foreign Languages Bookstore).