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.

Voices
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species
voicesJonathon Porritt: The wild tiger population is thought to have dropped by 97 per cent since 1900
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
football
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
filmThe Battle of the Five Armies trailer released
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him
musicIndie music promoter was was a feature at Carter gigs
Arts and Entertainment
Story line: Susanoo slays the Yamata no Orochi serpent in the Japanese version of a myth dating back 40,000 years
arts + entsApplying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Extras
indybest
News
Performers dressed as Tunnocks chocolate teacakes, a renowned Scottish confectionary, perform during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
news
Life and Style
Popular plonk: Lambrusco is selling strong
Food + drinkNaff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
Life and Style
Shake down: Michelle and Barack Obama bump knuckles before an election night rally in Minnesota in 2008, the 'Washington Post' called it 'the fist bump heard round the world'
newsThe pound, a.k.a. the dap, greatly improves hygiene
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
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

Entry Level Fund Accountant (Edinburgh)

£17 - £20 per hour: Cameron Kennedy Recruitment: My client, one of the worlds ...

SQL DBA/Developer

£600 per day: Harrington Starr: SQL DBA/Developer
 SQL, C#, VBA, SQL Server, ...

Risk Analyst - VBA/EXCEL

£300 - £600 per day: Harrington Starr: Risk Analyst Access, EXCEL, VBA, RISK, ...

Market Access Analyst (FIX 5.0, Equities, Derivatives)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Market Access Analyst (FIX On-boarding, FIX 5.0,...

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on