Vibram Boss: IP Enforcement Is A Waste Of Time; You're Better Off Building A Relationship With Customers

from the good-for-him dept

Last year, we wrote about a ridiculous bit of javascript coding on the website for Vibram (makers of the famed "five finger" shoes) in Italy -- in which if you merely right-clicked on an image, you were accused of trying to illegally copy their images. I was thinking about this recently, as I actually bought a pair of Vibrams. Last Thursday, upon receiving the Vibrams, I mentioned them online, and a DC-lobbyist, who follows me on Twitter, suggested my purchase was hypocritical, since he claimed Vibram was a strong supporter of intellectual property enforcement -- and pointed me to this Vibram ad, which shows a raised "middle toe" on one of their shoes as "a message to anyone thinking about infringing on any of our 200+ patents and trademarks."
It turns out that this ad is from 2010, and apparently the company's attitude has evolved quite a lot in the past two years. With somewhat amazing timing, the very day that my shoes arrived, the BBC put out an article in which Vibram's CEO, Tony Post, explains that focusing on IP enforcement is a waste of time -- and that the better solution is to build a much stronger relationship with customers -- basically the same thing we've argued for over a decade now:
"Candidly, you have to realise that intellectual property only gets you so far," says Mr Post. "At the end of the day it's really about your relationship with the consumer."
What the company realized was that focusing on lobbying and enforcement just wasn't effective. Instead, educating customers on the difference between real and fake Vibrams, and showing why they'd want to buy the real ones (i.e., giving them a "reason to buy") was much more effective. The company put up a page showing customers how to spot a fake, and saw that it worked.
Vibram offered vouchers to customers who had unwittingly bought fake Five Fingers, so that they could buy the real product at cost price.

The company also put up a page on its website alerting customers, enlisted the help of bloggers and asked fans of its Facebook page to get the word out.

Within a year, the deluge of complaints from customers who had bought fake products slowed to a trickle.
Amusingly, the article quotes Susan Scafidi, a professor who is well known for her support of ratcheting up intellectual property laws on fashion/clothing, suggesting that Vibram speaking out and connecting with its customers on this issue was a mistake: "It was a risky move, according to Ms Scafidi, who says that a company associating its name - however tangentially - with counterfeit goods could damage its brand." Beyond the fact that she was empirically wrong about this, that makes no sense. Being open and honest with fans, and explaining why they'd want to support the company whose product they like (and why counterfeit products are inferior quality) seems like a smart strategy. It's hard to see how that could "damage the brand" at all. In fact, it seems almost guaranteed to do the opposite, as it appears to have done here.

While the company still does seem to be interested in some legislative changes (and is taking legal action against a competitor), it certainly seems like a case where a company has realized that there are better ways to deal with these issues than just using intellectual property law.

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 5 Jun 2012 @ 7:35pm

    God's shoes

    I thought Al Bundy held the patents on these types of shoes.

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