A: Imitation is the sincerest form of…oh, forget it. You can't stop a swarm of wannabes from buzzing around your market, but you can thwart blatant rip-offs.
Although competitors can, by definition, compete with you, they can't confuse customers into thinking they are you. If their logos, delivery vans, uniforms, or other brand identifiers sport that Stinky Cakes look and feel, then you may have legal recourse, says John D. Lanza, chair of Choate Hall & Stewart's intellectual property group in Boston. Protection is there for those with something unique to protect. Trademarks cover the words or symbols used to sell your goods. Trade dress covers the appearance of your product or packaging. Unlike patents and copyrights, which are issued federally, trademarks and trade dress are adjudicated at the state level. Your lawyer will walk you through the drill.
To discourage imitators, celebrity stylist Heather Thomson, who last year founded Yummie Tummie, a New York City clothing company, has filed for patents on her body-slimming garments. And Yummie Tummie's website hammers home the story of how Thomson developed the products. Plus, Thomson delays publicity for new products until just before they hit shelves.
Thomson's customers are so loyal that they have become scouts. "Every single time I found out about knockoffs, it was through letters from customers," she says. "Some even sent me samples." Which brings up another point. You will need more than legal protection if you want your customers to remain faithful to you, says Heidi Dangelmaier, director of 3iying, a branding consultancy that helps companies such as Levi's and HBO target young women. Imitators will find it harder to woo away clients -- with lower prices, say -- if you focus on making every point of customer contact utterly delightful. "It's all about personality," says Dangelmaier.
Finally, even if you suffer an attack of the clones, resist the temptation to badmouth the competition to your customers. "Why drag customers through your corporate dirty laundry?" Dangelmaier says. "It makes you look weak."