/ Food & Drink, Shopping

Is it an Aldi fish or a Saucy fish? A fishy tale continues…


One year on from our last copycat packaging debate and the Government is consulting on making it easier for companies to take action against other firms they feel copy their packs. What do you think about copycats?

The proposal would allow firms to get a civil injunction under the Consumer Protection Regulations rather than relying on Trading Standards to do it. This has proved rare as it’s hard to determine whether there was a deliberate intention to mislead consumers. But, in an odd quirk of timing, the Saucy Fish Co. has just won a High Court injunction against Aldi’s saucy salmon fillets.

What’s new copycat?

In May 2013, our research found that more than a third of Which? members mistakenly identified at least one of the own-label products as the branded version. Whether they were bothered by this is a slightly different point. Of the one in five members who have unintentionally bought an own-brand product just 38% of them felt misled, which may suggest the majority were ‘happy’.

On the other hand, of those who had deliberately bought an own-label product, around 60% had actively bought the own-label because they wanted to see if it was as good as the branded one or just because it was cheaper.

And here on Which? Convo, you were split. The majority of you (56%) thought there was nothing wrong with shops copying other brands’ packs, with the remaining 44% saying it was wrong. Lots of people seem to like supermarket’s own-label products and they can quickly recognise one that is mimicking a popular brand. Others do feel misled and can’t judge whether an own-label is good quality or not.

So that’s why we want to hear from you again on copycat packaging to help inform our response to the Government’s consultation. Some questions include:

  • Are you aware of what you can do if you think packaging is misleading? Do you know where to complain?
  • Have you ever complained and, if so, to whom? What response did you get?
  • Have you ever bought an own-label product by mistake for a different reason than it looked like the branded one, for example a simple lack of attention mistaking shampoo for conditioner?
  • Can you give examples of branded or similarly packaged own label products that have not lived up to your quality expectations?
  • Do you object to businesses being able to take easier action against other businesses they accuse of copycat packaging? Are there any unintended consequences of allowing this to happen?

The question I would ask is: why copy, or closely replicate, a branded product’s packaging? I would suggest that apart from identifying a product type, it is to make you think it is a similar product. It may or may not be similar in quality or quantity. So it is designed to be misleading. If I am happy to buy an own-brand product I will do – in it’s own packaging. If I need any help finding it, it will be near the branded version presumably. I may want to buy the branded version, in which case I will look for the familiar pack. So I see no reason not to take action, just as in other copyright infringements.

Providing that the brand name is shown in large text so that there is no danger of confusion even if short sighted customers do look at the packaging, this does not concern me. As Malcolm says, the purpose of having similar packaging is to encourage the customer to believe that a product is similar to another brand. As long as the customer can see which brand is which, I am not concerned.

What concerns me much more is counterfeit goods, where the design and branding are copied in order to persuade the customer that they are buying a genuine product. Prison is too good for those who counterfeit goods.

In a Conversation about copycat products a year ago, McVities chocolate digestive biscuits were on sale for £1.75 and Lidl were selling the same size packet of their own brand (Tower Gate) for 59p. I bought a packet of each and thought that there was very little difference in taste and texture. Not surprisingly, McVities have dropped their prices considerably.

Copycat packaging is encouraging consumers to try alternatives to the big brands. Generally it is the big brands that spend a lot on advertising, so the cost gets passed on to the consumer.

We should demand that the brand of a product is shown in LARGE TEXT but perhaps enjoy the fact that cheaper brands are helping create healthy competition. That is something that is urgently needed with weekly shopping bills heading steadily upwards.

I don’t think people necessarily need persuading to try alternatives to brands – pricing and common sense will see to that for those of us not beguiled by adverts. They don’t need to be made to look similar to make us do that. Providing they are clearly distinguishable then they should not be misleading, but deliberately packaging them to appear similar to a brand is trying to cheat the consumer – and we don’t want that, do we?

I don’t believe that there is a problem if the manufacturer’s name is in large print. Supermarkets generally help by placing different brands of the same product next to each other on the shelves. Providing that the different brands can be distinguished then I don’t think the customer is being cheated.

I am more concerned that the misrepresentation in many adverts encourage customers to believe that it is worth paying over the odds for well known brands. That is cheating in my view.

Traditionally, manufacturers used very distinctive branding and there was no attempt to confuse consumers. I’m thinking of Heinz/Crosse & Blackwell for tinned soup or Cerbos/Saxa for salt. This all changed when supermarkets started producing own-label imitations of popular products and they needed to associate their version with the favourite. Eventually, they progressively eliminated competing brands so there was only the own-label product and one other brand available. In those circumstances, I don’t see the need to mimic the major brand. Pyschologically, customers might feel that if a supermarket’s own product cannot stand on its own feet then it probably isn’t as good [although it might still be better value]; it hinges on whether price or quality are the key criteria. Just looking at our most recent Sainsbury’s order, I see that 61 out of 80 lines were JS own-label items. I used to prefer the stylish and understated design of Sainsbury’s packaging with simple graphics.

There’s still a lot of snobbery associated with packaging. Aldi and Lidl hardly trade under their own names on their products as they have both created quasi, ‘sounds like’, brands to suggest the products are equivalent to famous brands, and their mimicking of major brands – which they don’t even sell – has reached new heights. As Which? has found, many of their products are just as good as, if not superior to, and are much better value for money than, the original, but there is a sense that people don’t want the discount stores’ names in their cupboard

As John says the supermarkets have changed the way that many of us choose what we buy. For many years I stayed with well known brands because the quality of some own brand produce was dire. Instant coffee used to be a good example. Maybe there is decent supermarket instant coffee to be had nowadays, but I still stick to the well known brands. On the other hand, back in the 80s, I used to ask a colleague at work to buy me coffee beans from Sainsbury because I preferred them to the branded products on sale in my local supermarket.

I don’t think I ever bought any products from the distinctively packaged Tesco ‘Value’ range. Many of these were very cheap compared with similar Tesco-branded products. Wrongly or rightly I worry about whether cheap foodstuffs are wholesome and safe. I am less suspicious of the newer ‘Everyday Value’ range, possibly because the packaging is less distinctive and the prices are higher, but still tend to avoid it.

What has helped me explore supermarket own brands is where the big brands have behaved irresponsibly (e.g. Nestle) or I have had bad experience with a company’s products (e.g. Princes).

As John has said, I think there is virtue in supermarkets such as Sainsbury having distinctive packaging, but that will only work for me if I can trust the quality.

Plagiarism by an author or infringing patent copyrights is against the law. Deliberately packaging to mimic a bigger well known brand is at worst simply fraudulent or at best free-loading on R&D and marketing /distribution which requires big investment. In many instances, the mimic packaging hides the fact that the Aldi or Lidl substitute ( because they are far and away the worst offenders) contains ridiculous amounts of sugar.
As a simple example- not quite copycat but trying to illustrate a point. Lidl sell a luxury Fruit & Nut Muesli which purports to have won all sorts of awards from Good Housekeeping, Grocer Food & drink etc. All the fruits have added sugar . Total sugars 30.4g per 100gms. A commercial comparative Jordans Fruit and Nut 24.9g per 100gms. Also Jordans have higher fibre and lower calories- an altogether healthier option although still not great.
So my main demands of labelling would be much more prominence to sugar and salt content that would carry warning labels for excessive added sugars .I would like to see the major manufacturers take on Lidl and Aldi with a few court cases and am surprised there have not been any. Starbucks , Macdonalds etc protect their brands aggressively. Kraft and Nestle are powerful enough to do the same. The absence of such cases makes me more sceptical then ever.
When smaller producers breakthrough into supermarkets e.g. Yeo Valley , then they cannot necessarily afford such litigation and that is why I support Which? in trying to stamp out this practice. Copying can ultimately impact the margins of smaller producers and then we complain when they get taken over by American giants such as Kraft

Oliver – I very much agree that nutritional information should be prominently displayed on all foods. Not just sugar and salt, but fat and saturated fat. It is very disappointing that many products still don’t carry the ‘traffic light’ labelling that we were promised ages ago.

I would not feel too concerned about big brands. Most of them have a poor reputation for ethical behaviour. But never mind since supposedly ethical brands are often owned by the big brands, and they are not too keen on us knowing. See this Conversation: https://conversation.which.co.uk/consumer-rights/find-out-who-really-owns-our-ethical-food-brands/

The Intellectual Property Bill will give protection for companies whose packaging is copied by others. and is now just waiting for Royal Assent:

I am coming to this thread late and have not read all the comments thoroughly but would just like to add that Aldi are very upfront about their products being the cheaper version of known brands so its not as though there is any intention of fooling the consumer . I am sure some said this at the beginning of this thread!

Vivian Brumpton says:
7 May 2014

I actively choose own-brands. It’s one of the reasons I like Aldi – fewer big brands.

Can we cover misleading websites in the same legislation?

KevinP says:
9 May 2014

Who is taking this to court, a consumer who has been confused by the packaging and feels, possibly rightly, aggrieved or a manufacturer who’s only interest is to keep their profits up?

The first move should be to take a product back to the retailer and demand a refund. If enough customers did this the retailer would be pushing the manufacturers to do something about confusing packaging. I would also suggest that the customer should contact the manufacturer of the copycat product and make a complaint.

Garibaldi says:
10 May 2014

Having invested considerable resources in a package design it must be rather frustrating for the big brands to find their images imitated by others.
However, consumers are short-sighted if they are unable to spot a copy.
Long live the ingenuity if the imitators

I think competition is good. Some supermarket brand products I like and some I don’t. If the branded names are so worried then bring their prices down or change the label. If branded products weren’t so expensive there wouldn’t be any need for the cheaper supermarkets. Mr the brands sort it out.

I think you are missing the point. Yes, competition is a good thing but the essence of this conversation is the way that supermarkets are trying to fool customers by copying the packaging of the brand leaders. Brand leaders put a lot of effort and money into developing a product and marketing it. The packaging design is, obviously, a significant factor in the marketing process so that customers can recognise the product on the shelves. If the supermarkets copy the packaging design the obvious intention is to gain sales on the back of the brand leader’s marketing efforts.

I have been caught out by this copying activity. In a rush one day I took a supermarket own brand product thinking it was my normal choice. The product, when I came to use it, was inferior to the extent that I had to throw it away. I check much more carefully now!

KevinP says:
11 May 2014

The point is, is the aim of the companies trying to bring actions under consumer protection legislation to protect their customers or their profits. I am all for customers being able to bring complaints about companies to court if they feel they have been mislead, but I do not want a company stifling competition in my name. If they want to set up an independent fund to allow customers to take companies to court then they would have my support, but I feel their interest lie with their own profits rather than my rights.

Garibaldi says:
11 May 2014

Re: tonyp
You really don’t have to state the obvious.
As we all know, many own brands are equal or superior to branded goods. Take Aldi’s ‘Magnum’ washing-up liquid which consistently beats Fairy hands down in Which? tests. I wouldn’t use any other.

“Re: tonyp
You really don’t have to state the obvious.”

It seems I wasn’t obvious enough!

This conversation is about the ethics of supermarkets copying the packaging design of branded items for their own-brand products. It is nothing to do with whether own-brand products are better or worse than the branded equivalents. Personally I buy quite a few own-brand products but I prefer this to be by conscious choice rather than being duped into buying them by the dubious use of copy-cat package designs.

Caroline says:
12 May 2014

I am suspicious of own-brand items where the packaging is in the same colour / style as a brand item, as I assume all the cost has gone into copying the packaging not the contents, so I avoid these particular own-brand items, which seem to be a hallmark of Aldi.

I am more than happy to purchase ‘normal’ own-brand items and rarely buy brand items from reputable supermarkets, preferring to buy their own-brand items.

Conclusion: for me, copycat packaging stops me purchasing the item so is counter-productive.

It’s annoying when supermarkets deliberately mislead consumers.
A casing point was Asda had an offer on an isle end offering 4 pot noodles priced at £2.50 which was good value. Then the following week they had replaced the pot noodle for their own branded snack noodles in the same position at the same price as the pot noodles. I picked them up and realised I had been duped when I got home. The packaging and colours where almost identical.