Watching the others

Companies express outrage at counterfeiters brazenly exploiting their hard-won brand equity, but surely it’s a mutually dependent relationship? says Hugh Pearman

Did I ever tell you about my counterfeit famous-brand watch? I’d better not name it – you never know who’s looking. Lots of sports stars advertise it. I bought it at a speciality street market in Kuala Lumpur. ’Speciality’ meant that they dealt only, and openly, in fakes. There was fierce competition among the stallholders, which kept prices keen. Even so, you were expected to bargain hard. Being English, I don’t like this, but I played the game, walked away, was called back, and got my ersatz Omigod Breitlex for precisely a few quid.

The man who sold it to me noticed my own watch as I handed over the notes. ’Is that a “real” Swatch?’ he asked, dumbstruck. It seemed that even a relatively cheap Swatch was worth someone’s while to fake, in Kuala Lumpur. Such is the power of branding.

Mainly, though, there was every glossy mag upmarket brand known to mankind. The fact that there’s huge money in this business is borne out by the huge amount of advertising and sponsorship by the watch companies. And also explains why they are, rightly, very hot on counterfeiting, and relish their periodic public steam-rollering of fakes. They can have mine any time they like, I’d rather enjoy seeing it being steam-rollered.

But then, nobody tried to pretend to me that it was a real one, which is something I would never have bought. So nobody deprived real Omigod Breitlex of a sale to me. I wasn’t conned. I know that a real example will not just cost vastly more, but be infinitely better made, out of far more valuable materials, will last for ever and so on. But that doesn’t make me want any of those aspirational watch brands because – apart from not having the money for them – it’s not a look I aspire to. And that’s why, once I’d had my fun, the fake ended up in a drawer.

I wonder how much the counterfeiting affects these companies. One famous watch brand warns on its website that 99 per cent of everything carrying its name on the Internet is fake. Wow. But I think we’ve all become rather discerning. Every day on every street, you see people sporting branded goods that we all assume are more likely than not to be fakes. In many cases, they are not even copies of real luxury items – just stuff that has had the brand name and/or logo slapped on it.

In a curious way, it’s a back-handed compliment. If the real brands weren’t strong and desirable, nobody would bother trying to copy them. It’s very close to being free advertising for the real thing. I know the counter-argument, that the rubbish stuff degrades public perception of the real thing, and affects sales. But I think we have got good at spotting the difference.

Some brands (again, I’m naming no names) have no substance, are just the product of vacuous celebrity-based marketing. Fine watches, cars, and suchlike are different, because we can all see the craftsmanship and engineering skill that goes into them. And it’s not at all funny when a rival company pirates the design of one of your patented products, ripping off your own innovation.

So what am I saying? That some fakes are okay and some aren’t? No. What I’m saying is that in a world full of knock-offs, the real thing is more important than ever. Because without the existence of the real, excellent thing – well, nobody would be able to counterfeit it, would they?
Me, I’m still wearing a Swatch.

And it’s still a real one. Oh, and I paid full price for it.

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