How Can Product Managers Stop Copycat Products?

Copycats can only be stopped if other people stop selling them
Copycats can only be stopped if other people stop selling them
Image Credit: [cipher]

The goal of every product manager is to create a popular product that our customers want to purchase. However, there is a bit of a problem with this plan. If our product becomes too popular, there will be other companies that start to make copies of our products. They may try to place their products in front of our customers by getting retailers to carry their products. This can cause all sorts of problems for product managers. How should we handle situations like this?

The Problem With Fake Shoes

Product managers at Birkenstock, the shoe manufacturer whose popular sandals have spawned many copycats, is now starting to pressure retailers to stop selling similar styles from other brands. Some of these retailers, including and Nordstrom, have stopped carrying some of the styles. These copycat brands are sold by Freedom Moses, Mephisto, Naot and Viking Sandals. As you can well imagine, those firms are not happy about this. They refer to what is going on as being competitive bullying. They claim that they have not infringed on any design patents. Due to pressure from Birkenstock, Nordstrom and Zappos recently canceled orders for Mephisto’s Harmony and Hester sandals that the company has sold for more than two decades. The order was cancelled because the shoes look too similar to Birkenstock’s Arizona style.

The product managers at Birkenstock believe that retailers are making the decision about what to sell on their own. The Birkenstock product managers have an obligation to protect their brand and plan on making it available only to retailers who maintain its integrity. The Birkenstock product managers are trying to eliminate duplication. The product managers always try to be thoughtful about shoes that closely resemble their iconic style, especially when they know that their customers love the original.

Birkenstock is not the only shoe company that is trying to protect its brand. Companies from Chanel to Nike go to great lengths to protect their brands from copycats. Several years ago Nike stopped selling directly to Amazon because of the copycat problem, and Chanel has sued luxury consignment retailer The RealReal over alleged counterfeits. Ten years ago Christian Louboutin sued Yves Saint Laurent over a monochromatic red shoe that Louboutin said violated its trademarked red soles. The result of this lawsuit was that a federal appeals court ruled that Louboutin’s soles are protected; however, only if the entire shoe isn’t red.

Solving The Counterfeit Problem

The Birkenstock product managers have trademarked their footbeds, and they hold several design patents on newer styles. Nevertheless, it might be difficult for them to police look-alikes. The reason that this might be hard is because there have been so many copycats out there for years, it could be hard for Birkenstock’s product managers to show that they have been using some of these designs exclusively. However, the Birkenstock product managers have been successful in defending their trademarks.

The Birkenstock product got a reboot in recent years, after fashion houses such as Celine and Givenchy put their twist on their comfy sandals. Birkenstock product managers have churned out new versions, including blinged-out styles in collaborations with designers such as the shoemaker Manolo Blahnik. The Birkenstock product managers make a range of sandals from rubberlike beach shoes that sell for US$50 to its core leather sandals, which average around $130. Alternatively, their designer collaborations are pricier. Currently a Manolo Blahnik velvet Birkenstock sandal with a crystal buckle is priced at $810. The challenge is that the look-alikes have a range of prices too, from around $40 to several hundred dollars. Some knock-off versions of Mephisto’s Hester sandal sell for $169.

The Birkenstock product managers have also tried to police online sales. They stopped selling directly to Amazon. Recently Birkenstock will no longer allow third parties to sell its products on Amazon’s marketplace. The Birkenstock product managers prohibit the sale of its products by any authorized retailer on any third-party marketplace in the U.S., including Amazon. The problem was that the product managers found that Amazon was not taking decisive enough action against product counterfeiting and other trademark infringements. Two years ago Birkenstock’s product managers sent an email to retailers warning about styles that “piggyback” or “feed off” Birkenstock’s success such as Freedom Moses and Viking Sandals. The message was that they will only move forward with those retail partners who value their partnership.

What All Of This Means For You

Every product manager wants their product to be a success. However, I think that we all realize that with success comes a set of unique problems. If our product is a success, then there will undoubtedly be copycat products created. The problem is that these copycat products will take sales away from us. Product managers at the popular shoe manufacturer Birkenstock are currently dealing with this problem.

Birkenstock makes sandals that have spawned many look-alike copies. They have started to exert pressure on firms that are selling the copycat products to get them to stop selling them. The Birkenstock product managers don’t believe that they are pressuring anyone. The problem with copycat shoes is a big deal. Other shoe manufactures such as Nike and Chanel have had to take steps to protect their brands. In order to protect their brand, the Birkenstock product managers have trademarked their brand. However, the copycats have existed for so long that it may be difficult to get them to stop. The Birkenstock brand got a boost recently when major design labels started to feature it. They have also paired with other designers to create custom footwear. The Birkenstock product managers are also trying to police online sales of their product. They will not allow it to be sold on Amazon because they don’t feel that Amazon does a good job of taking actions against counterfeits.

The Birkenstock product managers have a significant challenge. They have popular products that people do want to buy. However, they also have a large copycat market that they have to find ways to prevent from stealing their sales. They have been trying to choke off the retail outlets for the copycat brands and reduce their online presence. We’re going to have to see if they can walk all over their copycat competition.

– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: What changes to their product could Birkenstock product managers make to reduce copycats?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

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