Shoppers could be forgiven for thinking that, when Aldi launched its new Norpak butter, it was perhaps trying to trade-in on the established brand name of Lurpak.
But the issue of copycat brands has reached new heights after it emerged that the discount chain Poundstretcher is being sued by the consumer products group Procter & Gamble for allegedly selling fake bottles of Head & Shoulders shampoo.
The US firm has filed for damages at the High Court, claiming copyright infringement in 2013-14, when bottles bought at Poundstrecher turned out to be fake, according to The Sunday Times.
The case could turn a spotlight on cheaper, private labels looking very similar to big brands, which many analysts say stretches copyright laws to the limit and has grown as the discount sector booms.
Richard Hyman, a retail analyst, said: “It goes hand in hand with the discounting sector being very significantly busier than it was, whether it is in food or fashion. However, it is not a sustainable approach and retailers have to create and develop their own brands and identities – standing or falling on the strength of that.”
A recent survey by Which? found that nearly one in four shoppers had mistakenly purchased an own-label product instead of a brand because of similar packaging. There have been a series of court actions by leading brands against supermarkets for copyright infringement, including Asda being forced to change the packaging of its Puffin chocolate biscuits after they were found to be too similar to McVitie’s Penguin bars.
Aldi was served with an injunction by The Saucy Fish Company, although the case never went to court. Aldi subsequently removed the product from its shelves. One of the few cases to be won was by Reckitt & Colman, which in 1990 won a claim against a copycat Jif Lemon because of its unique packaging.
With the rise of discount chains such as Poundland, Aldi and Lidl, the issue has become more prevalent. Clive Black, an analyst at Shore Capital, said: “Supermarket private labels have long stretched boundaries and tested the goodwill of trademark law, consumers, manufacturers and regulators with mimicry.”
But lawyers have previously warned that, owing to the complexity of copyright laws, it is difficult for claimants to win. Analysts also point out that there is an uneasy relationship between retailers and brands that runs the risk of being broken with court action – a retailer could threaten to stop selling branded products, and court costs can be excessive.
Other brands facing competition from similar products includePimm’s, with most supermarkets selling a similar-looking version, Samson malt vinegar in Lidl, which looks similar to Sarson’s, and Choco Rice in Aldi, which uses a yellow box and monkey cartoon similar to Kellogg’s Coco Pops.
Many retailers will argue that their customers can tell the difference, and also that their brands are of similar quality but significantly cheaper. But Mr Black questioned that premise, saying: “Comparing Norpak to Lurpak is dubious. The Advertising Standards Authority needs to make sure the public is not misled”.