World Intellectual Property Organization

Outreach: Culture Shock - Comparing Consumer Attitudes to Counterfeiting

November 2007

Peddlers of fake designer bags appeal to bargain hunters in the stylish shopping streets of Venice. (Photo: J Bowman)
Peddlers of fake designer bags appeal to bargain hunters in the stylish shopping streets of Venice. (Photo: J Bowman)

By Jo Bowman

Counterfeit in the fashion industry is rife the world over. Industry associations and governments spend millions on campaigns to deter consumers from buying fakes. But a message which works in one part of the world may fall flat elsewhere. Understanding consumer attitudes and cultural influences is critical to developing an effective campaign. Journalist Jo Bowman has worked with market researchers in Hong Kong and in Italy in surveying consumer attitudes. In this article, she takes a look at contrasting attitudes in these two very different cultures, and the implications for developing effective messages.

Take two identical Louis Vuitton bags. Both are counterfeit, and both were picked up by fashion-savvy shoppers out for a bargain. Yet for the buyer of one of them, their designer fake is a badge of honour; for the other it’s a tightly held secret.

What’s the difference? One was bought in Italy, where looking good is numero uno and breaking the rules is often seen as harmless fun. The other in Hong Kong, where consumerism and Confucianism fuel a desire for luxury goods which bring their owners dignity and respect.

Stereotypes certainly. But which reflect two very different markets, and two very different consumer mindsets to work with if you’re trying to determine what sort of message would convince one or other of them not to buy fakes.

Shopping “smart”

In Italy, home of countless world-leading luxury design houses, fashion is a mainstay of the national economy – and a way of life.

“Fashion is very, very important to Italians,” says designer Gabriella Tinelli from Milan. “It’s in our blood to want to look good.” The traditional evening passeggiata down the main street of even the smallest of Italian towns is all about dressing to impress; throwing on an old tracksuit to drop the kids at school is a definite no-no.

What consumers are prepared to pay to look stylish is another matter, complicated by the notion of being furbo, or cunning, an attribute that is admired. A perceived bargain, therefore, is a magnet for “smart” shoppers, hence the brisk trade for beachside peddlers of copycat bags and belts.

So how do you deter the bargain hunters? Buyers of counterfeit goods in Italy are liable for a fine of up to Euro10,000. But no-one believes they will ever face it. Nor do messages that counterfeit is a crime hold much sway. For many Italians – as for other Europeans –buying a fake is seen as providing the same “harmless” kick as speeding or under-declaring on a tax return.

“We park where there are ‘No Parking’ signs,” Silvio Paschi, secretary-general of the Italian anti-counterfeit trade association Indicam, says of his countrymen. No one wants to buy what they think is the real thing and discover it’s a fake. But knowingly buying a cut-price designer knock-off can make people feel clever. “They know the quality is poorer, but it’s a way of pretending. That’s not particularly different from other parts of Western Europe.”

Price is only part of it. A Prada spokesman says while some people buy fakes simply because they can’t afford the originals, in Italy it’s also seen as fun. “You’re on the beach, bored, and here comes a guy with a fake Rolex. You bargain a bit and it’s a game,” he says. “You go home and say ‘look at my new E30 Rolex’. There’s a playfulness about it.” Sometimes the well-heeled will even mix in a fake with their originals for a laugh. 

Re-educating consumers, so that such playfulness is outweighed by an awareness of economic consequences, is no small challenge. The Italian Government has appointed a High Commissioner for Anti-Counterfeiting and has been strengthening the laws protecting IP. Laurent Manderieux, IP law professor at Milan’s Bocconi University, says the police, customs and IP offices have been doing a “remarkable” job to counter the industry in fakes.

Losing face

In Hong Kong, meanwhile, big-name European luxury brands are similarly sought after. The city is known for having the highest per capita consumption of Rolls Royces and cognac. Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping said famously that “to get rich is glorious,” and while Hong Kong was only reunited with the mainland 10 years ago, its people have always taken this message to heart. Displaying the trappings of wealth is to win the approval of the community.

“It ties in with conformity and conspicuous consumption,” says Gerard P. Prendergast, Professor of Marketing at Hong Kong Baptist University and author of numerous research studies into consumer attitudes and anti-counterfeit campaigns. “It’s the desire to be seen with the right brand, and the right brand is the one that others have.”

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Fashion police. Hong Kong’s custom officers search for fake brands.(Courtesy of Hong Kong Customs and Excise Dept.)

There’s also pride in being smart with money, so a bargain appeals here as much as anywhere. What’s different is that no-one wants to be found out – not for fear of the law – in fact, there is no penalty for individuals buying counterfeit goods – but for fear of losing face.

“In Hong Kong people show their success by showing they can buy Mercedes cars and Louis Vuitton bags … and if you’re found to be faking your sign of success, you’re not successful,” says Doris Wong, Hong Kong Director of market research company, Synovate.

It is not a problem of awareness. Public opinion surveys conducted by the Intellectual Property Department of the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region show that 95 percent of people believe it is necessary to protect IP rights. Yet almost half of them at least occasionally buy pirated or counterfeit goods.

What’s revealing is that nearly three-quarters of the people buying fakes tend to buy CDs, DVDs and software – things that no one else will see. Only 12 percent say they buy counterfeit clothes and accessories, and less than 1 percent a replica watch.

Ben Houston, Deputy Trade Marks Manager at Manchester United football club in the U.K., says that fakes seem to be less in demand in the more developed Asian economies. The club seized more than £500,000 (US$ I million) worth of counterfeit ManU replica shirts and other merchandise during the team’s tour of Asia this summer; only about 4 percent of that was from Hong Kong.

“In Hong Kong there’s kudos associated with having something authentic that’s come from the club itself,” he says. “These fans are thousands of miles away from us but this allows them to have something that’s close to the club they support, and they’re extremely passionate about the club.”

Tailoring messages

The importance of face is used in Hong Kong’s anti-counterfeit campaigns. “People buy fashion and accessories because of peer pressure, so that’s a good tool to use in the other direction,” says Stephen Selby, Hong Kong’s director of IP. “We say ‘You are what you wear;’ if you wear fake clothes you’re a fake person.”

Campaigns also appeal to the importance of family in Chinese culture. “People can be sold all sorts of things on the basis that it’s good for their children,” says Mr. Selby. “We say, Hong Kong is a creative centre and their kids could be working in creative industries in the future. And we could say ‘the people who gain from selling counterfeits could be using that money to peddle drugs to your children.’”

In Italy, says Silvio Paschi, messages intended to scare or shame just don’t work. Instead, “the focus is on public education, saying ‘you’re ruining the Italian economy and supporting crime’.”

Changing consumers’ minds, Mr. Paschi believes, takes more carrot than stick. “They can listen to the slogan and repeat it, but in the end either you scare them or you educate them. People don’t really know about how the economy works; it is very possible to educate them, but it’s a very long exercise.”

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