3 Ways to Defend Your Design Against Knockoffs
Chinese manufacturing has created a number of ongoing issues for today's designers. First and foremost is the flood of low-cost knockoffs that saturate the market and dilute the customer base. Even designers with patents and intellectual property protections on their products face competition from copycats.
Quality control has also become unreliable. Chinese suppliers often quote the best possible price but deliver parts and components that fall below quality control standards and conflict with design intent. The disruption and delay created by faulty parts erases any cost savings.
Finally, the makeup of Chinese manufacturing encourages a hyperfocus on the bottom line. That makes it difficult to build relationships and foster trust, especially when potential suppliers are ruthlessly undercutting each other. There's a race-to-the-bottom mentality that rarely serves the long-term needs of domestic designers. It's important to learn ways on how to protect your designs.
Our Experience With Chinese Manufacturing
We have seen several times how easy it is for Chinese manufacturers to infringe on patents. We were involved with the design of a children's iPhone case. The idea had broad support from school boards and parents, but shortly after release, copies from Chinese factories were already popping up on Amazon.
In some cases, these copies directly replicated the original design, while others included cosmetic tweaks. But in all cases, the intellectual property was stolen, and the Chinese product was cheaper. It's hard to fault a consumer for saving money, but designers deserve to be compensated for their efforts and abilities.
Another example illustrates just how deeply this problem can affect domestic designers. We helped to develop an innovative foam massage ball that used proprietary techniques to make a two-piece injection molded part ball. This replaced a current product that was made by bonding two halves of the ball together. That product was quickly copied by Chinese factories, but they did not take the time to perfect the bonding technique.
Once the knockoff balls began to flood the market, they became notorious for splitting in half. The whole concept of foam massage balls lost credibility with consumers. The newly designed injection molded ball recently received rave reviews at the Outdoor Retailer show for being innovative in its design.
Protecting Your Products From Imitations
The problem with bootlegs, knockoffs, and copycats is not going to go away any time soon. So it's up to the designers themselves to take a proactive approach to ensure their products are protected. Here are 3 ways on how to protect your designs.
- Differentiate your product from the copies. Because the iPad protector was going to be used primarily by children, it had to meet federal standards for safety and toxicity. The Chinese knockoffs used a product that did not comply with those same standards. It may have looked very similar, but it was objectively not as safe for kids. By emphasizing the nontoxic nature of the original protector, the patent holder was able to stand out to parents and educators.
- Rely on an original process and utility patent. One of the best ways to deflect copycats is to rely on a design that is hard to copy. The massage ball is a great example. The bonding technique we created prevents the ball from splitting in half. Because Chinese factories could not replicate this technique, they struggled with ongoing design failure. Low cost is appealing to consumers, but quality, consistency, utility, and longevity are more important.
- Have the next iteration ready to go. When a knockoff does inevitably appear, make sure that the next version, design, or upgrade is already headed into production. That keeps you one step ahead of the competition while strengthening the singularity of your brand. Brand image is the best long-term defense against copycats. The more popular a product or company becomes, the more the knockoffs look like cheap imitations.
Protecting your designs can start early in the process. Helping your product stand out from the competition and survive in a crowded market starts during the design phase. The more resources you dedicate to creating a unique, innovative, and distinctive product, the more you distance yourself from unscrupulous imitators. Focus on the early stages of product development to give your product the longest shelf life possible.