Retailers are flocking to India, thanks to an economy that is still growing and a young population eager to gobble up new brand names.
But some Western brands — once they conquer the regulatory hurdles to getting into the market here — may get a sinking sense of familiarity. For instance, Timberland , the maker of hiking boots and other outdoor gear, identifiable by its tree logo and chunky, durable shoes, will find Woodland, which sells similar shoes and clothing, and has a tree logo.
Pinkberry, the Los Angeles-based frozen yogurt chain, will encounter Cocoberry, a frozen yogurt retailer with a look-alike logo and a similar array of candy and fresh fruit toppings.
And The Financial Times, Pearson’s newspaper published with a pink tint since 1893, is locked in a legal battle with Bennett, Coleman & Company, owners of India’s largest English-language newspaper: a pink-tinted supplement it calls The Financial Times, which it registered in India in 1984.
Pearson’s Financial Times is eager to publish in India, but Bennett Coleman is challenging that right in court. Indeed, in recent months, a subsidiary of Bennett Coleman registered similar names with India’s newspaper registry, including FT Asia and Worldwide Financial Times.
Like Bennett Coleman, Woodland — the Timberland look-alike — is no mom-and-pop operation. It has 230 stores nationwide and 50 more on the way, and it is a staple of urban shopping malls. That could cramp Timberland’s planned expansion in India, potentially confusing would-be customers and costing Timberland sales.
The United States has long tussled over intellectual property rights with China, where counterfeiters crank out knockoffs of designer bags and iPhones (and manufacturers have even made entire vehicles that look just like foreign cars). But as brands look to India as one of the few opportunities for growth in an anemic global market, foreign companies and governments alike are protesting the country’s lack of intellectual property protections, too.
As Gary Locke, the commerce secretary, told a group of Indian executives visiting Washington this month, “U.S. businesses need assurances that when they come to India, they’ll be operating in a secure and reliable environment for intellectual property.”
India will be the best market in the world for retail sales growth this year, A. T. Kearney said in a report released in June. India’s “growing, educated and aspirational middle class is demanding a better retail environment and more global brands and styles,” the consulting group said.
Wal-Mart , Carrefour and Tesco are opening wholesale stores that will sell to restaurants and owners of small shops. Dozens of foreign brands that have not already entered the Indian market are searching for domestic joint venture partners, which they need before opening a store here.
When questioned about the inspiration for Woodland, Harkirat Singh, managing director and the third generation to run the family shoe company, said the assumption should not be made that “just because the name sounds similar,” Woodland is copying Timberland. There is a “similarity,” he acknowledged, “but our line is quite different from theirs.”
Mr. Singh said he thought Timberland’s entry into India could help, not hurt, his business. Foreign brands “bring more awareness about quality footwear” to India, he said. Then Indian consumers “buy our product because it is more value for money.”
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Timberland’s spokeswoman, Robin Giampa, said that Woodland’s “imitation of several of the valuable and well-recognized Timberland brands is a concern.” The company is addressing Woodland’s “brand piracy” through the appropriate legal processes in India, she said.
Whether that will be successful is unclear. “Our courts have recognized that you can’t have an isolated approach to trademark law,” said Gayatri Roy, a lawyer with Luthra & Luthra in New Delhi, meaning judges have often ruled that brands that are well known around the world cannot be copied by someone else in India, even if the companies with those brands do not do business in India. In such cases, Indian courts have decided in favor of Whirlpool, Dunhill and Volvo, among others.
In the case of Timberland and Woodland, though, it may be difficult for Timberland to prove that it should be protected, Ms. Roy said. After all, Woodland has been in business since 1992, she said, so they have created their own identity.
When asked whether Pinkberry frozen yogurt was his inspiration, Cocoberry’s chief executive, G. S. Bhalla, said he wanted to create a brand “associated with nature, health and social responsibility.”
(The company said Mr. Bhalla’s 7-year-old daughter was the inspiration for combining the words coco, for cocoa, and berry, for the fresh fruit that tops the yogurt.)
“Our product, recipe, store design, menu and philosophy are unique and very different from any other brand in the world,” Mr. Bhalla said. “We plan to expand at a steady and controlled pace in India,” he said. Pinkberry had no comment.
Citigroup has been active in India, as Citibank, for decades, and the country’s urban areas are dotted with bank branches with the blue-striped sign. But that did not stop Yes Bank, a retail banking chain that rolled out branches throughout India in recent years, from using a very similar sign.
Some imitators are so loosely based on the original that they may not be considered a threat — like the 6Ten convenience stores. With their yellow and blue signs and piles of loose grains for sale rather than Slurpees, they are unlikely to be seen as competition to 7-Eleven.
And sometimes, the imitation is less about the brand than about what it represents. Across India, a number of scooter and motorcycle drivers sport the familiar Marlboro cigarette logo of a red and white chevron on their helmets. On closer inspection, those logos say “Marlborne” or “Melbourne.”
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The helmets, made by several manufacturers, are “basically replicas of the helmets worn by Michael Schumacher during his racing days at Ferrari,” explained Rahim Premji, a partner with Allibhai Premji Tyrewalla, a bike dealership. Mr. Schumacher, a Formula One driver, was sponsored by Marlboro.
Helmet manufacturers were forced to replace the Marlboro name after the authorities said that tobacco advertising was not allowed in India, Mr. Premji said. Marlboro, not surprisingly, has not complained about the free advertising.