Why competitors who copy are damaging small businesses and the market

The Suite Set businesses copying

Sally Branson Dalwood founded The Suite Set with her husband Jonathan. Source: Supplied.

As Oscar Wild is often quoted, “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. Less remembered is the rest of the stanza: “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness”.

I reflect upon this quote almost weekly when I see yet another copy of my business’ product, our font, our design concept or as I did this week, a whole product description cut and pasted from our website onto another. This week I also found someone making copies and using our same colourway and font.

It’s all well and good to be flattered, but the increasing prevalence of businesses copying others with no care or consequence is causing significant angst in the small product industry.

Unfortunately, these copies or imitations are all mediocre. Using inferior products and manufacturing, the products are not made fit for purpose, and indeed some have significant choking or suffocation hazards.

Our idea was built on years of research

Another oft used quote is “there is no such thing as a new idea” but I believe there is. We had one. Many of these copier businesses rely on this lazy fallback to justify taking ideas and making them poorly. We’re all for encouraging entrepreneurship, but surely we need to find a standard — making a great product, a quality offering and giving great customer service, rather than making shoddy rip-offs and copying content.

Until we began The Suite Set, hospital bag organisers did not have a place in the market nor in the conversation about preparing to go to the hospital to have a baby.

We’ve developed almost three years of content, and now a podcast, to have conversations about preparing for hospital, ending the pressure and overwhelm for new parents. We’ve gone to a great deal of effort to manufacture a product that is made in Australia; we spent years researching the manufacturer of plastics and safe materials. Throughout our business development and daily running, we support small and sole traders who are based in Australia. Our instructions that we include in our hospital bag organisers are two pages of text, developed from research and consultation with obstetricians, midwives, doulas and parents.

We aim to serve; our product is a platform to create conversation and solutions around becoming parents and ending the pressure and overwhelm. The work we do on content, making sure we have safety disclaimers, the work we do on our podcast, on our EDM, on having robust charity partners who we donate to daily, outweighs the work we have done manufacturing and packing our product.

So to see our content repurposed and copied across social media is disheartening. We’ve had competitors say that they had no idea we exist, but use our hashtags and repurpose our content. They claim ignorance and naivety. Who can afford to go into business with these traits.? Yet, they do.

At the risk of being soundly folksy, we have great pride in our brand, our product and our customer service. We quality control the whole way along and we are often incredulous that not only do they copy and deny, but they sell a really crappy product to boot. Because our product is an add on to the process of having a baby in hospital, the whole concept could be damaged by an accident with an inferior product.

 

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A post shared by SALLY @ THE SUITE SET (@thesuiteset)

A sector-wide problem

It’s not just our product; as a sector, we are seeing this across many pregnancy and baby products.

We stock a maternity underwear brand on our website, developed by a midwife. She’s recently had a wholesaler take her product, cheaply copy it and begin selling it. The copier has a bigger advertising budget, and a bigger budget for influencer marketing, and so a product the midwife spent years refining and market testing, is now being flogged by her former wholesaler.

And it’s not just small competitors. Rumours abound in the small product community that big chains have developed research units to trawl the internet and find ideas that are creative and creating niches, and then develop the product for mass production and sale.

It’s crushing enough to see other small businesses copy but even harder to deal with a behemoth. We recently learned a business we work with that provides online support for pregnancy and parenting was asked to meet with a big company for a collaboration project. As part of the presentation, they were asked to present their marketing plan and research. Less than three months later, the big chain went to market providing the same offering.

Many small businesses in the pregnancy, baby and parenting market have developed their products due to a need they felt themselves during their own experiences. They’re family businesses that spend their family holiday money on product development or work other jobs to support their enterprise, or they juggle running their business with parenting young children. The thought of entering into any legal proceedings, especially a ‘David and Goliath’ battle, is chilling.

Community over competition

We’re not naive, and we’ve always expected the market to grow, but we didn’t realise there would be unconscionable copies, and we didn’t realise how very little we can do about them.

We’ve been keeping in close contact with a competitor who makes fabric hospital bag organisers. Our products serve different tastes, and our business connection is a lovely example of community over competition; we keep each other updated with copies we see and share the same trademark attorney.

We are both increasingly frustrated at how difficult it is to take any real action against these copiers. We need to be able to prove that the copies are significantly damaging our business or sales. We can’t trademark the concept, only our names and sometimes our designs.

I don’t know the solution, because I can’t expect all consumers to research the providence of every product they buy. To choose the quality, and perhaps more expensive, product over the copy. Although coming up to a big purchasing season, I would love again to urge shoppers to find their best brands, small businesses and Australian owned and made.

I would like for the environment for small businesses to encourage enterprises with new ideas and concepts, with faith that their courage to start small businesses will be supported and protected.

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