Flattery We Can All Do Without
By Steve Crandall
Vice President, Sales & Marketing
Ashaway Racket Strings
Here's an incident that began with one of our squash strings, but could just as easily happen to racquetball and other racquet sports products:
The real Ashaway SuperKill XL string has a very distinctive - and trademarked - cross-pattern in the weave. No matter what you buy, making sure it's the genuine item is your best assurance of quality and performance.
Not too long ago, I got an email from a squash player which started out, "I am a very happy user of Ashaway string out here in Chicagoland..." I liked that: "happy user of Ashaway string" has a nice ring to it. But then he went on, "This evening, I was looking at squash items offered on eBay, and came across a Taiwan-based seller who seems to have copied your SuperNick design and even your SuperNick sales literature. The seller is even so bold as to claim that the 'Super Touch' string on offer is 'very close to that of Ashxxxx Super Nixx - more than 95%.'" "I'm guessing," my correspondent continued, "the 'Ashxxxx' and 'Nixx' are to avoid a keyword match for Ashaway and Nick, but the seller is clearly identifying that the product is a knock-off of your company's product."
Suddenly I was not so flattered. Not by this kind of imitation. It's no secret that counterfeiting - via product knockoffs - is rampant, but this struck home. Say I was guilty of 'it can't happen here' syndrome, but the thought that this was happening here in our little world of racquet sports, where sportsmanship and fair play are considered virtues, was actually shocking. Call me naive, but I actually felt violated, like someone had robbed my house.
It's not my intention here to whine or complain. The folks at eBay were very helpful and removed the offending offer immediately, and the seller in Taiwan has already agreed to "cease and desist." But this issue is one that should concern all of us - players, manufacturers and marketers alike - both inside and beyond our world of racquet sports.
Were you aware, for example, that many of the top selling badminton racquets in South East Asia are knockoffs of a leading Japanese brand? Or that for years, racquet and string manufacturers doing business in Asia have had to print special marks and even holograms on their products and packaging to avoid counterfeits? It's a known threat there - though the situation is improving - but the penetration of racquet sports knockoffs into the US market has so far been limited.
So why should you care? Well, it's illegal, if that means anything in today's 'why shouldn't I download it for free?' culture. Counterfeiting a brand or product is theft, plain and simple. The Lanham Act is very specific about patent and trademark infringement. Most of the world's industrialized economies offer similar Intellectual Property protection to their citizens and international agreements have long promised mutual respect for such basic laws. Even Communist China, long considered the rogue of rogues in this regard is slowly but surely coming to heel on this issue. So abusers, and even those who knowingly purchase knockoff products, can be held liable.
But the reason you should care is much more fundamental than that. Marketers of knockoff products typically claim they are providing 'the same for less;' that their products are identical to those they imitate and that a brand name is simply a way to justify higher cost. This implies that manufacturers who develop and market products are part of some vast, nefarious conspiracy to defraud and fleece the public, that there is no such thing as product differentiation or even plain old quality. I can tell you from our perspective that this is definitely not the case. At Ashaway, we work long and hard to develop strings that satisfy our customers' needs, and with any number of friendly competitors out there, watching every move we make and eager to pounce on any missteps, we price and market our products very carefully indeed.
So if you buy a knockoff product - no matter whether it's of a Gucci purse, a Rolex watch or Ashaway SuperKill® XL string - you are not getting 'the same for less.' You are not getting the same at all. In fact, you are probably getting much less.
Originally a brand signified ownership. But in our increasingly impersonalized society, it has come to mean much more than that: it signifies a compact between the maker or supplier of a product and the consumer of that product that reflects certain expectations and assurances. In the middle ages, some guys in Damascus, Syria, figured out a better way to make steel, and buying a 'Damascus blade' became a way of assuring your sword would not shatter in battle.
As a manufacturer, our brand is our way of standing behind our product, of literally putting our 'stamp' on it. It's our reputation. As a consumer, a brand is your assurance that what you are buying is what you expected to buy and that the product in your hands will live up to the manufacturer's claims for it. If not, you won't buy that brand any more. Moreover, you'll probably tell all your friends about your bad experience and they won't buy any more of that brand, either. In a perfect world, sales of that brand will plummet, and the manufacturer will suffer such abject humiliation that he (or she) will not be able to look his spouse or children in the eye.
The point is that product knockoffs contravene the whole foundation of this compact and we are, none of us, left with any assurances. You have no way of knowing what you are getting - or in the case of blind internet sales, even if you are getting - and manufacturers have no way of standing behind what they sell.
So what can you do about it? Simply know what you are buying and who you're buying it from. For example, the real Ashaway SuperKill XL string has a very distinctive - and trademarked - cross-pattern in the weave. If the stuff you're seeing doesn't look like that, it's not SuperKill XL. And if the website you're buying from doesn't list basic things like a physical address, it's probably not real either. Imitation may be a form of flattery, but when it comes to products, it's a form we can all do without.