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.

Rodgers showered praise on Balotelli last week, which led to speculation he could sign the AC Milan front man
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music(that's not Arctic Monkeys)
Lizards, such as Iguanas (pictured), have a unique pattern of tissue growth
Anna Nicole Smith died of an accidental overdose in 2007
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tvReview: Bread-making skills of the Bake Off hopefuls put to the test
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
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

Test Lead (C#, Java, HTML, SQL) Kingston Finance

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A Global Financial Service Organi...

Access/Teradata Developer, Banking, Bristol £400pd

£375 - £400 per day: Orgtel: Access / Teradata Developer - Banking - Bristol -...

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home