On the day her new line of facial soaps was set to hit the shelves last winter, Roxanne Quimby, president of the $25 million natural personal care company Burt's Bees Inc., stepped into an upscale Manhattan drugstore. She was pleased to see her three-pack of lettuce, carrot, and tomato soaps on display. Then she saw what appeared to be a knockoff three-pack: lettuce, carrot, and tomato soaps made by a company in France. A week later, in a different drugstore, it happened again: lettuce, carrot, and tomato soaps in a three-pack, produced by yet another company.
"It was a real shock," she says, and it couldn't have been simple coincidence. Someone, somewhere along the line -- a supplier, a consultant, a packager, or even an employee -- had sold out Quimby's idea in spite of the confidentiality agreements she'd had everyone sign.
Painful as they are, knockoffs are inevitable as private-label products become more popular, says Joel Weiner, a retired Kraft executive from suburban Chicago, who now is a consultant and guest lecturer on consumer packaged-goods marketing for business schools around the country. (For the record, he believes the three-packs may in fact have been a coincidence. He calls the phenomenon of similar products emerging at once "spurious correlation.") But betrayals of any kind can really hurt small companies without the power, or the pockets, to intimidate. As Quimby says, "Their work is derivative of your work, and you've taken all the risks."
Instead of struggling to prevent the unavoidable, Weiner says, fight back after the fact. "You could sue," he says, "but that's real expensive and could take a couple of years." The best strategy: bullet-proof your brand. Make it clear that you're the original, and stress your unique selling proposition -- such as, "seven pounds of organically smooshed lettuce per bar," Weiner offers.
That's exactly how Quimby has addressed the pretenders. "We're promoting the heck out of our soaps," she says, with a campaign stressing "good ingredients." She has confronted her vendors, consultants, and employees but doesn't plan to sue anybody. Her philosophy is, "Competition probably makes you better -- if it doesn't wipe you out."