copycat bannerImitation may be the highest form of flattery but it can also be characterized as the curse of the successful. While it’s a stamp of validation (of sorts) when you see your ideas peddled by copycats, it’s also frustrating to feel like you’re now working for them—and to the determent of your own sales! While it would be nice to banish knockoffs altogether, it’s not realistic. But, the good news is there are steps you can take to insulate your company from the also-rans. Here are 5 things to do to fight the inevitable slew of fake yous.

1. Keep It Moving.
Unless we’re talking about prints or intellectual property, the law is of little help when it comes to fashion copies. And even if the proposed design laws were to be enacted, the money spent in court would bankrupt your company faster than the copies themselves ever could.

One of the best defenses you can take is a great offense, meaning keep producing new and better products. That way, you stay one step ahead. And instead of obsessing over your lookalikes, keep in mind that for most items in the fast-moving fashion industry, the lifecycle is pretty short. So even if you’ve had luck swapping prints or tweaking palettes for a style for a few seasons, it’s bound to lose steam. So whether you have imitators or not, you’ve got to be looking toward the next new thing.

2. Brand.
I can name more than a few companies that are surviving—and even thriving—despite a raft of competitors who’ve seen fit to knock them off. How are they doing it? They’ve built a strong, recognizable brand. Branding gives you credit for your ideas, creates perceived value and makes you the legitimate source for certain items.

Take Kleenex. Most of us have long ago forgotten that this is a brand name. Instead, we often refer to all face tissue as Kleenex. So when we’re standing in front of a shelf full of options at the drugstore, which box do you think we naturally reach for? Kleenex. Also, think about the luxury sector. While some items are genuinely superior in quality and style, many are riding on the cachet of an established brand name.

Still skeptical about the power of branding? Just think: even companies that weren’t first to market with a product have been able to edge out the competition thanks to their brand power. Here’s an example I share with my students: consumers don’t realize that the athletic shoes purported to be butt-lifting miracles existed before Skechers came out with its version, the ShapeUp. In fact teeny little companies like MBT had been hawking them for a while. But because they lacked the branding and advertising support, they lost out to Skechers. (Who then lost out to the courts when judges became skeptical of the shoes’ claims.)

3. Court Your Retailers.
The Internet is filled with stories about people who have never met but thanks to their frequent tweets, Facebook posts or blog comments have forged lasting friendships. It can happen. But nothing beats face-to-face interaction. That’s why we always say, “It’s great to put a face to a name.” Even hearing someone’s voice on the phone is a bonding experience.

If the stores you do business with are just names on a spreadsheet, then your company probably has the same paltry significance to them as well. It won’t matter to them if they get bows, shoes or tees from you or someone else with a similar look. Opening a dialogue and working with retailers as a true partner will make you more than a company name on an order form. And the stores will be more likely to work with you through rough times and stay loyal when knockoffs come calling.

4. Speak Up.
These days you can get runway looks at any price point, but shoppers are savvy enough to know that if they encounter the Miu Miu banana print at H&M or Zara, the quality will be more than a little different. So it goes with imitations. They rarely hold up to the attributes of the originals.

While other companies’ products might look like mirror images, they’re not the same as yours, and you need to let your retail partners and consumers know it. Tout your products’ qualities and tell buyers why they should shop your line instead of others.

5. Knock Yourself Off.
Since knockoffs are inevitable, why not get a jump on the also-rans by creating a collection that mimics your look but targets a different customer, price point or retail tier? There are several examples in our industry of brands that have taken this savvy approach. But, you must be cautious about how you execute. For instance, should you develop a new brand for the new collection or can you leverage your established brand name to jumpstart the new line?

By focusing on what you can do instead of lamenting about the things that are outside of your control, you can minimize the impact imitators have on your bottom line. —CC

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