In October, a TikTok user posted about cheap replicas of Lululemon apparel available on Amazon. Fast forward to today, and that video has racked up over 1.5 million views.
Lululemon, a brand synonymous with high-end athletic wear, has skyrocketed in popularity. Largely thanks to savvy influencer marketing, its online followers have hit an impressive 9 million. But as the brand trends online, it’s not just about the hashtags and likes. The rise of low-cost replicas, or “dupes”, of their products has sparked a whole new conversation, with the #lululemondupe hashtag amassing over 180 million views on TikTok.
As befits a brand renowned for its guerilla marketing tactics, Lululemon chose to tackle this problem head on. Back in May of 2023, they hosted their own “dupe swap” event, offering an opportunity to trade fake leggings for the real thing. Followers of the brand got to see the merits of the products up close, while Lululemon got to engage with and convert followers into owners of their products. In short, controlling the narrative on dupes.
But here’s the thing. Dupe swaps won’t work for every brand. Not all want to be so bold in acknowledging an issue like imitation and, bluntly, not all have the brand license for such tactics. So, what else can they do?
Dupes vs. counterfeits: navigating the IP and brand implications
First of all, it’s important to distinguish between dupes and counterfeits. A dupe is a replica of a product, often cheaper, whereas a counterfeit is a direct copy. Unlike counterfeits, dupes don’t claim to be the original branded product, nor do they reproduce protected logos. As such, dupes don’t typically cross the line into a trademark infringement. This can make conventional enforcement based on trademark violation a challenge.
Consumer attitudes towards dupes and counterfeits also differ. While most would seek to distinguish a genuine product from a counterfeit, dupes are often seen as a smart buy, especially among younger consumers on tighter budgets. With 53% of people aged 13 to 39 stating that the quality of dupes makes them less likely to purchase a genuine luxury item, it’s clear that replicas are more than just a fad. If anything, they are a statement. Influencers are further legitimizing this sentiment, by actively promoting dupes on social media and fueling demand.
In summary, while counterfeits and dupes both mimic genuine products, the differences in intellectual property status and consumer sentiment are profound. Counterfeits are the cynical impersonators, infringing trademarks and deceiving buyers, with sub standard materials and shadowy criminals completing the picture. Dupes on the other hand offer a remarkably similar aesthetic but occupy a greyer area in terms of legality and perception. This distinction is pivotal for brands in crafting their strategy, involving both more or less conventional measures.
Around half of people aged 26 years or younger have purchased at least one dupe in the last year.
Challenges and responses: enforcing against dupes
Despite the inherent complexities and contradictions of dupes, establishing intellectual property rights remains a crucial first step for brands. This includes securing design patents, trademarks, or copyrights, and considering protections in emerging spaces like the metaverse. However, the real challenge lies in detecting infringements and enforcing rights, especially when dupes often avoid or circumvent direct reproduction of a trademark.
To address this, brands can still look to the capabilities of online brand protection services and their underlying systems. These tools, which can incorporate visual AI into their detection techniques, are able to spot lookalike replica products and identify their online promoters, even in the absence of trademarked logos. This can form the backbone of a proactive strategy for identifying and informing the response to potential imitation.
Brand imitators may be getting smarter, but countermeasures can be equally savvy. Our experience with Furla is a case in point. The luxury brand was confronted with counterfeits of its iconic Metropolis handbag on a well known web platform. Investigations uncovered that the counterfeiter had registered FurlaBee as a trademark in China and France, so conventional enforcement would involve risk. However, by gathering evidence of the brand abuse through comprehensive online monitoring, Furla was able to file a successful invalidation action.
Enforcing against dupes, while challenging, is not impossible. Establishing and defending intellectual property rights, using sophisticated legal tactics, innovative online detection techniques, and smart technologies, can form the basis of a strategy for brands to safeguard their identity and maintain the integrity of their products.
Social media and influencers: shaping consumer attitudes
While legal action and online brand protection are effective tools in squeezing the supply of imitation products, they are often only part of the solution. If the demand side of the equation is to be tackled, it is equally crucial to understand and adapt to shifting consumer attitudes towards dupes, as well as the factors that shape them.
It is unsurprising that social media plays a central role in the rise of dupes, since its platforms were already used to promote counterfeits. Dupes are now a viral sensation, with the #dupe hashtag on TikTok drawing 4.3 billion views. With all the chatter on digital platforms, it often comes down to the simple fact of a lower price tag and a receptive market. Since millions of young people are active on social media, influencers have a willing audience. In fact, around 29% of consumers have bought dupes because of an influencer’s social media endorsement.
When it comes to social media and influencers, it is worth remembering that online brand protection tools can specifically target these platforms, as well as identify those working against a brand. That said, some brands have taken a different approach, as in the case of premium hair care brand Olaplex. They were aware that influencers were knowingly promoting dupes. So they recruited their own influencers to launch a mock product, Oladupe, on social media. Although a ruse, the brand gave consumers a 20% discount to buy genuine Olaplex goods.
Footing the bill for a mock product launch is unlikely to be palatable to all brands. But social media also offers opportunities for consumer engagement and the influencing of consumer perception across online communities, aided by influencers. It is easy to flag the quality, safety, and ethical concerns around counterfeit goods, but dupes may be produced by legitimate brands, or at least credible suppliers. However, they will often still fall well short of the genuine article, so social media can shift attitudes towards understanding and appreciating the authentic.
56% of people say they use social media platforms to shop more now than ever before.
Enhancement and engagement: the beating heart of brand building
Pursuing enforcement of intellectual property rights and influencing consumer attitudes can take you some of the way. But what about good old fashioned brand building? How do brands make themselves more appealing?
Brand enhancement helps elevate premium products. Novel materials, innovative designs, and exacting quality create impact and strengthen brand identity. These elements also add a distinctive edge to product features that make them harder to imitate. It was rampant counterfeiting that encouraged Gucci to develop their brindle pigskin tanning technique, while Burberry packaging has featured a security paper that mimics their gabardine fabric. Visually compelling designs can also inspire consumers to actively participate in marketing initiatives.
Back in the realm of online consumers, the power of social media, influencers, and digital marketing can help articulate and amplify product benefits, commitment to social causes, and shared values. This strategy enhances the appeal of the product and brand, but also connects with consumers on a deeper level, fostering a sense of community and belonging. Brands like Patagonia exemplify this approach, with pioneering environmental and ethical policies, such as their product circularity initiative and giving 98% of their profits to climate charities.
A dupe might be able to mimic their physical products, but it’s hard to see it creating the ownership experience of a genuine product. Similarly, Lululemon are effectively asking those that aspire to their brand whether it feels smarter and more rewarding to be a true part of their brand family, or a purchaser of a broadly functional and cheaper imitation. Of course, each consumer will react differently, but many will commit fully to the brand.
2 out of 3 people want to buy from sustainable brands.
Tackling dupes: refocusing on originality
Inventive approaches, such as those employed by challenger brands like Lululemon, can effectively re-engage consumers with original products. Dupe swaps and mock product launches may seem like bold approaches, but they’re simply creative takes on conventional brand building. Time will tell whether dupes are a persistent threat or more of a cultural blip. But even if it proves to be the latter, brands can see this as an opportunity to engage and convert consumers, build stronger brand propositions, and catalyze their difference for a new generation.
Of course, not all strategies will apply universally. Brands such as Patagonia, with their enduring values and loyal followers, will be able to employ tactics that will simply not be viable for others. Similarly, the messaging and methods of Lululemon or Olaplex create a stance that may not be compatible with more reserved or established brands. This highlights the need for a tailored approach. What works for one brand in combating dupes may not suit another. Each brand must assess its unique situation, values, audience, and imitators to develop customized strategies that resonate with their followers and reinforce the appeal of their brand proposition and products.
How OpSec can help
OpSec offers a range of intellectual property and brand solutions that help combat brand imitation in all its forms. We help establish intellectual property rights, devise and implement brand protection strategies, design authentication and enhancement into products and packaging, and empower brands to activate engagement marketing programs. As importantly, we help brands adopt and adapt these measures while moving at speed.
Ready to take action against dupes? Find out how here.