Bare Conductive: The copycat conundrum

Bare Conductive discovered a factory in China that was copying its designs and even its logo and name. What were the options for this little east London startup?

Chinese knock-offs have been a curse to designers all over the world. Some of the biggest brands have been engaged in a losing game of whack-a-mole, shutting down one offending factory only to see several others emerge producing fakes. What’s more, the fakes have got much better and cheaper than earlier replica iPhones, Dyson vacuum cleaners or Burberry handbags. It’s increasingly becoming a problem for companies much younger and smaller too.

Discovering a fake

Bare Conductive produces kits that combine electrically charged paint and a circuit board for adults and children, allowing them to create all manner of different things that light up or make sounds.

Things were progressing well. A first product was launched in 2011, a successful Kickstarter campaign followed in late 2013, allowing the company to finesse a hardware-software proposition where its Touch Board and conductive paint operate in tandem.

Then in May this year, co-founder Matt Johnson came upon a comment from a user on its message forum complaining that its circuit board wasn’t working. The details didn’t make sense to Johnson. He asked for a photo, and soon realised he was looking at a fake.

Costs of suing

He ordered a batch from the company selling the clones, and sent a cease-and-desist letter.

With no response, Johnson, his management team and investors were then left considered the company’s options. They could either take legal action or work with the company making the clones as a manufacturing partner.

There was ample ground to sue. ‘They used our design, name and logo. We have a trademark in China, but suing would’ve exhausted our bank accounts in a few weeks,’ says Johnson wearily.

Race to the bottom

Bare was happy with its existing manufacturing, and part of its frustration with the factory attempting to pass off Bare’s hardware was that the fakes were such low quality and badly misrepresenting the brand.

Johnson was warned of the risks of copying when Bare was starting out two years ago. ‘Everyone told us about the commodification of hardware, the race to the bottom as factories copied the designs, cut the margins and left everyone to fight over pennies.’

After several frustrating weeks of investigating and debating, Johnson and his colleagues came to the conclusion it would effectively ignore the fakes, and sharpen Bare’s entire focus on experience.

Emphasise experience

‘Transforming that piece of kit into something that has meaning, purpose and a real application for a user or a creative agency for example is where we can differentiate.’

Bare is trying to co-opt individual makers to develop ‘compelling case studies’, says Johnson, that in theory will show it is more reliable than the copycats, while providing examples of how it can be used.

The iPod is the textbook example of how user experience and communication rather than hardware ultimately gave Apple’s MP3 player the edge over cheaper and often better specced rivals. It’s difficult to presume this will be sufficient for Bare to beat its counterfeiting foes though. ‘I wish we had a ton of money so we could pursue them legally, but this is the lever we have, so we will use it the best we can,’ says the lever we have, so we will use it the best we can,’ says Johnson.