Brand-jacking: riding on the wave of a copycat culture

Top brands are piggybacking on the brand equity of other companies to overshadow competitors or gain an advantage in the marketplace. But be warned, these campaigns can be very successful or backfire miserably.

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but as Apple and Samsung have seen lately, if you get it wrong you could end up in court with an expensive law suit on your hands. Get it right and you might get column inches that benefit your brand.

The trend, known as ‘brand-jacking’ in some quarters, has seen Greenpeace mock Shell’s advertising; both Nokia and Samsung mimic features of the iPhone 5 and start-up company Pinstagram hijacking two brands, Pinterest and Instagram, to create a hybrid application.

The effect and influence of campaigns and companies that use another brand’s features for the good of their own products varies on the scale of negative and positive.

Greenpeace borrowed the logos, visuals and even the service offering of Shell’s advertising for its own benefit. It used Shell’s ‘Let’s Go’ advertising campaign to protest against the oil giant’s polar exploration. Greenpeace’s Arctic Ready campaign saw ads, a video and a website using Shell’s visuals to create replica material.

The website,, invited visitors to create their own version of the ads that use straplines such as: “We’re conquering the Arctic today to fuel a brighter tomorrow,” and “Some see a frozen wasteland. We see an ocean of possibility.”

Greenpeace senior climate campaigner Vicky Wyatt calls this a clever campaign.

“The aim was to communicate in a different way about Shell and its activities in the Arctic. It was a way to repackage the issue and to take Shell’s ‘Let’s Go’ advertising campaign and subvert it in a way that made sure our campaign about saving the Arctic reached a wider audience.”

arctic ready greenpeace
Greenpeace used Shell’s logos for its Arctic Ready campaign

Wyatt claims that using the Shell advertisements is a contrast to the more traditional campaign materials that are produced by NGOs that can sometimes be seen as “a bit worthy and earnest”.

Wyatt adds: “The idea was to take Shell’s advertising strapline to a different extreme and make people think: is this for real or not? In a way, we thought that it would appeal to a different set of people than we normally get to speak to.”

The outcome was positive; the campaign went viral, the website achieved 4 million page views and 17,800 spoof ads were made by visitors. The Twitter account @ShellisPrepared reached 6 million people, with the most popular tweet getting 10,000 re-tweets, according to social media marketing analysts Crowdbooster.

An example of brand-jacking that is positive for both brands, or in this case all three, is Pinstagram. The hybrid application combines Pinterest and Instagram to give consumers a different experience to what the two brands provide separately.

Pinstagram lets people view their Instagram photos on the web and iPad. Instagram only has phone versions of its app, so there was a market for people who already use Instagram and wanted to use the service on a computer or iPad.

Pinstagram founder Pek Pongpaet says: “The idea behind Pinstagram was simple – mash up two of the hottest internet and mobile products. The result being that people can view Instagram photos in a Pinterest-style layout. I decided to combine these brands because I was an avid Instagram user and wanted to be able to view Instagram on the web.”

The fact that these brands already existed played an important role. Pongpaet adds: “Building new products off an existing ecosystem can be beneficial to both parties. If you address a need that the brand doesn’t solve, you are complementing their service and you get to leverage an existing user base rather than having to create a new one.

“However, just building something on top of an existing brand doesn’t guarantee immediate success. You still need to come up with a great product and solve people’s problems.”

It is the complementary nature of Pinstagram that means the piggy-backed brands have not officially commented on it, claims Peter Firth, journalist at LS:N Global, the trends network of The Future Laboratory. “Pinstagram has jacked Pinterest and Instagram in a way that’s complicit with the other two. It’s a homage to the other brands, and it’s useful to both brands as it drives traffic to their platforms. If your brand gets jacked, that serves to crystallise your aesthetic and brand as all the more iconic in a way.”

This form of marketing can be used to highlight the product benefits of one brand and its superiority over others. Nokia and Samsung both saw an opportunity to make fun of the features of the iPhone 5 with the Nokia Lumia 920 and Galaxy S3, respectively. Nokia released an advert that suggests the iPhone might be dull because it is only available in black and white. It shows droves of unhappy dark figures queuing and when one figure asks for a coloured phone he receives a shocked reaction from a salesperson. This then relates to the Nokia Lumia 920 being made in five different colours.

Samsung took a less subtle approach to mocking Apple fans. Its advert shows fans queuing up at the launch to buy an iPhone 5, talking about its features and becoming confused. Samsung then shows its Galaxy S3’s features in a more favourable light. Features that led to Apple suing Samsung for $2.5bn in patent disputes.

Samsung also ran into trouble with its ‘Rethink the Laptop’ campaign. Samsung released a video in which rival laptops were dropped into a mincing machine and shredded. The activity was linked to Twitter, where people could vote for a rival laptop to shred. This didn’t work in the technology brands’ favour and attracted negative comments.

Pinstagram mixes Instagram and Pinterest to view photos online

Public confrontation doesn’t always work for either company, according to Firth: “Consumers are starting to realise that feuds between brands and heightened competition doesn’t necessarily serve the customer – it serves the brand itself.

“The difference is how well it is executed. In many respects, that’s what advertising has always been about: ‘don’t buy from them, buy from us’. If that’s done in a subtle way it works and it’s successful.”

Procter & Gamble’s brand Old Spice takes this trend to a different level by gatecrashing brands within the P&G group itself. In its US advertising campaign, it shows a traditional scene of a woman selling the benefits of using laundry brand Bounce. Within 10 seconds, brand ambassador Terry Crews smashes through the house into the laundry room on a jet ski claiming: “Old Spice is too powerful to stay in its own commercial.”

While this is a light-hearted way of sending up both brands, there are more sinister forms of hijacking brand equity. Luxury brands in particular are seeing more people unaware that what they are buying might be counterfeit goods says Guy Salter, deputy chair of luxury organisation Walpole (see Luxury Brandalism, above). He says there is a need for education.

Shannon Edwards, managing director of Vestiaire Collective, which sells secondhand high-end luxury brands, agrees that brands should educate consumers. “One of the most powerful things brands can do is tell consumers about the value of an authentic item. Often people can just see it as a logo that’s easily replicated on something cheap but, actually, there is an enormous amount of craftsmanship and history around a very expensive luxury item.

“The more education that’s done around that, the more people will actually value having something authentic.”

While some brands choose to respond openly to their equity being ripped off, others that have had their identity borrowed or mimicked choose to keep quiet. In the Arctic Ready campaign, any response from Shell would have added fuel to the fire, claims Wyatt. “Companies in that position find it difficult because any aggressive legal or other action to shut down the conversation often fuels it. Whether they respond or counter it, it is difficult to stop it anyway, so they are caught between a rock and a hard place.”

Luxury brandalism

Counterfeiting is of particular concern to the luxury industry – especially when copies are very close to the real thing, or are sold on websites that look genuine. Fakes on websites were estimated to cost businesses £85.6bn last year, for all industries, according to MarkMonitor. Many of these goods have been made in China.

Guy Salter, deputy chairman of Walpole, an organisation for British luxury brands, explains that the sale of counterfeit goods is a form of ‘brandalism’. Websites that mimic a real brand “are much closer to brandalism because the whole experience is being taken over”, which is a concern for the industry.

He says: “The consumer, unfortunately, believes they are dealing with the real brand on these websites. They get inferior products and have issues with that. If they bring the product into a brand’s shop, it’s only then they find out that it’s not genuine.”

This was a real concern to jewellery brand Links of London, which found several websites selling products that looked very similar to its products and offered at only slightly lower prices. Links countered this by having the websites taken down where possible, and also by answering queries on its Facebook page about potential fakes. It also ran a campaign in The Times to raise awareness among consumers.

Salter adds: “In the past 12 months, most luxury brands have become not only aware of this but now spend a lot of money and time identifying issues and taking down sites. Some brands have taken the trouble to point out to consumers that this is going on, to be aware and look out for certain things to deem if the product or site is genuine – and consumers appreciate that.”

A positive result from this negative form of marketing is that the issue is highlighted to more people, not just consumers. Salter says: “This is a topic that has been considered to be dry and just for the legal department. Now, increasingly it’s being handled by everyone, including marketers. It’s become central to what luxury brands are doing.”



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