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
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
Powdered colors are displayed for sale at a market ahead of the Holi festival in Bhopal, India
techHere's what you need to know about the riotous occasion
Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
News
Details of the self-cleaning coating were published last night in the journal Science
science
News
Approved Food sell products past their sell-by dates at discounted prices
i100
News
Life-changing: Simone de Beauvoir in 1947, two years before she wrote 'The Second Sex', credited as the starting point of second wave feminism
peopleHer seminal feminist polemic, The Second Sex, has been published in short-form to mark International Women's Day
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Evening Administrator

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This Pension Specialist was established early...

Guru Careers: Executive Assistant / PA

£30 - 35k + Bonus & Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Executive Assist...

Ashdown Group: Graduate Application Support Analyst

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Reach Volunteering: External Finance Trustee Needed!

Voluntary post, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Would you ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable