Has Sephora found its doppelganger in Malaysia named Sefarra?

Many of us have heard of, interacted with or purchased products from cosmetic chain Sephora. Now, banking on the popularity of the name now is Malaysian brand Sefarra.

Sefarra, which had its grand opening and perfume soft launch last week in its makeup store at Kelantan, describes itself on its official Facebook page as a company that sells various "branded" make-up tools, and provides make-up services within affordable prices. The store and brand is owned by a Malaysian named Farra Fareez who has her own line of makeup and contact lenses called Farra Beauty.

Its uncanny resemblance to Sephora, especially down to the black-and-white striped paper bag, has caught the attention of netizens. Besides its paper bag which resembles the ones from Sephora, Sefarra's perfume miniature set has also drawn attention as it appears to copy the idea and concept of some of the most renowned global brands in the world.

On its official Facebook page below, product description shows the perfume set comes in four different "inspired classy elegant scents - Coco Chanel, Dior Addict, Chloe, and Gucci Guilty".

Seferra has also advertised on social media that it is looking for a 'talented, creative and self-motivated' individual to join its marketing team.

While the similarity has raised a lot of questions and eyebrows when it comes to protecting a brand's image and trademark designs, it is not the first time a smaller player in Malaysia has taken a free ride on the coattails of a bigger one. Malaysia's ANAS brand also has a similar logo and the look-and-feel to NARS Cosmetics. Meanwhile flaunting similarity in packaging is also Malaysian brand Dida lipsticks to ColourPop Cosmetics’ Lippie Stix.

Sephora and Sefarra have not yet responded to A+M's queries.

Beauty brands aside, even prominent budget airline AirAsia can't escape from similar situation when it was faced with a doppelganger in July this year. Going by the name of Azeri Asia TV, the media channel is owned by Azeri Asia Holdings (M) Sdn. Bhd. Its loyalty programme too bears resemblance to that of AirAsia’s, flaunting the name “Azeri Asia TV BIG Loyalty Programme”. In response, AirAsia cautioned public in a press statement, calling this an infringement on its intellectual property (IP) rights and that it had “never authorised Azeri Asia to use AirAsia’s corporate identity”.

Brand plagiarism: Sincere form of business flattery?

"Successful brands are always at risk of being copied. As the saying goes, brand plagiarism is the most sincere form of business flattery," Jonathan Bonsey, creative and managing director of The Bonsey Design Partnership, said.

Smaller, lesser, more risk averse companies that lack the presence of mind to create a brand for themselves will gravitate to such an easy trading solution.

Bonsey also said the mistake, is to attribute the title "brand" to these imposters.

"They are not brands but copycat trading opportunists. The distinction is important," he added.

Lau Kong Cheen, associate director at A.S. Louken, said having a name and design plus products that are visually similar is definitely not by coincidence.

"This concept is called brand mimicking," he said. Lau said such strategy usually misleads people in the market and may cause confusion for customers, who might end up buying the brand by “accident”.

"The general consumers will in time come to know that this is a visually look-alike of Sephora. This will definitely raise attention and curiosity to try the product due to perceived familiarity effect, particularly consumers who are more adventurous. Subconsciously, the mimic brand is able to draw upon some of the confidence of the genuine brand which it attempts to mimic," he added.

Protecting your brand

When it comes to infringement of copyright, there are two ways in which a brand can take steps to protect itself, Katie Ewer, strategy director of JKR Singapore, said. First, take all reasonable steps to ensure your brand’s visual brand assets are unique and ownable. As such, brands should strive to reject the generic and embrace the distinctive in every piece of communication. Secondly, trademark your visual brand assets with the relevant IP laws of your markets.

Unfortunately, Ewer said, no matter how much care a brand takes in building unique brand equities, brands ultimately rely on the protection of local IP laws to safeguard those equities. Even when such laws exist, they may be poorly enforced by local officials.

"That seems to be the case with Sefarra, whose laughably lazy rip-off of Sephora will rely on the Malaysian authorities enforcing IP laws. [...] Whether Sephora think it is worth coming down heavy on the owners of Sefarra remains to be seen," she said. She added:

As brand builders, we should take the deepest level of offense to this kind of behaviour. It is theft, pure and simple.

"And for governments, letting this pass negatively affects both international perception and local entrepreneurship. Ultimately, international brands will be more likely to invest in countries that offer and enforce ample IP protection; and local startups will have a reason to invest in creativity," she added.

Lau agreed with Ewer, adding that legal protection is a need in seeking the advice of an IP lawyer to evaluate if any aspects of the brand visual identity have been violated.

"That is also provided that Sephora has registered their brand in Malaysia. However, with the proliferation of e-commerce where mimic brands can be widely distributed, this approach can be a very tiring process," he added.

To protect itself, another approach for brands is to be more aggressive to emphasise the core intangible benefits that it can offer, which are often difficult to copy, Lau said. Brand mimicking usually is restricted to the visual identity of the brand, but not its intangible benefits, such as the quality of the product, the nature of customer service, the tone of voice of the brand, its heritage, and personality. All these are encapsulated in the entire brand experience that is unique to the original brand

Sephora, Lau said, can leverage on its digital and offline presence to communicate this with some well thought off campaigns. In short, a strong brand is larger than its visual identity.

Bonsey also added, for brands to protect itself, apart from investment in trademark protection.

"Staying quiet will invite further encroachment. Punch hard and early and be very public about your intent to protect your brand at all costs. Use media and PR tools to denounce the so-called imposter," he said. He added companies should invest in brand innovation; retail upgrades, product formulation, changes to livery and trade dress that will signal their leadership position. He urged brands to take the leadership stance:

Be very public about your innovations and progressive brand developments. Be the leader, keep changing. Increase the distance between you.

"There will always be those for whom copying is a legitimate business strategy. In time, Asia will evolve to adopt the very intellectual property protection that makes domestic innovation possible and sustainable. Until then and the culture of copying becomes unacceptable, successful brands will have to lawyer up and keep moving forward. Distance is the best defence," Bonsey added.