City & Business: Copycat complaints are likely to backfire

THE ugly dispute between branded grocery manufacturers and supermarket groups over 'copycat' own-label products gets louder by the day. Sir Michael Perry, chairman of Unilever, has joined the fray, accusing stores of misleading shoppers with their 'parasitic' products. 'I have no objection to sitting at the same table as my competitors,' he said last week, 'but I do object to them eating off my plate.'

Coca-Cola is livid with J Sainsbury, whose newly launched Classic cola looks very similar to the 'real thing'. Sainsbury has compounded the offence by heavily promoting Classic in its stores and relegating Coke to the outer darkness of the bottom shelf.

Now Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Mars, Nestle and others, under the auspices of the British Producers and Brand Owners Group, are threatening to cut future investment in Britain, following the Government's refusal to toughen up trademarks legislation. It warns of a 'bloody battle ahead' with copycat producers dragged through the courts.

Supermarkets have seen the last of the fat years. Margins are falling and even the mighty Sainsbury is likely to reveal a small decline in pre-tax profits (to about pounds 715m) when it announces its annual results this week. So they are all the more determined to exploit own- label products, which yield much wider margins than outside brands.

It's easy to see why the manufacturers are annoyed. They spend millions developing a brand and millions more drumming it into the consciousness of the public through prime-time TV advertising. It's galling for them to see supermarkets piggybacking on this work.

But the truth is that shoppers are rarely actually misled. According to the National Consumer Council, customers are certainly not being duped. If they were, the manufacturer would have a very strong case, either under existing trademark statutes or by using the common law to prove 'passing off'. Jif lemon juice was able to see off a rival in just this way.

There's more than a whiff of hypocrisy about the whole business. Most of our biggest branded manufacturers secretly manufacture own-label versions for supermarkets. They include United Biscuits, Allied Lyons, Nestle, Rank Hovis McDougall and even Sir Michael's Unilever.

By protesting about copycats, brand manufacturers are moving into dangerous territory. The more they complain, the more they suggest in the minds of consumers that it is only their packaging that differentiates them from the competition. From there it is a perilously close step to admitting, say, that Coke tastes no better than Classic, that Head & Shoulders is no better than Sainsbury's anti-dandruff shampoo - a particular bugbear of Procter & Gamble, that one.

Brand manufacturers would do better to invest their energies creating genuinely new products rather than defending old ones. Politically, they can't win this battle - not while own-brands are 25 per cent cheaper. They'd be wiser to remember what imitation is the sincerest form of, then grit their teeth and shut up.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones
tvGame of Thrones season 5 episode 1 review
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want it for the fitness tech, or for the style
Astronauts could be kept asleep for days or even weeks
scienceScientists are looking for a way to keep astronauts in a sleeplike state for days or weeks
Fabian Delph celebrates his goal
footballChristian Benteke and Fabian Delph turn semi-final after Liverpool goal
Life and Style
Model wears: top £29.50, leggings £25, jacket £29.50, bag £25, all
Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £45,000: SThree: SThree Group have been well e...

Ashdown Group: IT Manager / Development Manager - NW London - £58k + 15% bonus

£50000 - £667000 per annum + excellent benefits : Ashdown Group: IT Manager / ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant / Telemarketer - OTE £20,000

£13000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Scotland's leading life insuran...

Ashdown Group: Training Programme Manager - City, London

£40000 - £45000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Training Programme Manag...

Day In a Page

Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace