Question Of The Week

Dupe Culture: Sincere Flattery Or Brand Sabotage?

"I found the best dupe" - the TikTok trend comes with both threats and opportunities for brands

By Avnie Bansal

At the recent, IPA Effworks Global conference, a study by ARC, focusing on consumer data, concluded that 2024 is the year of shopping around. “Shopping is no longer on auto-pilot. People are searching for alternatives and buying new things.” And 47 per cent of consumers have tried a new brand or retailer in the past six months in 2023, double the number in 2021. 

So perhaps it's not surprising that, in search of alternatives and to survive the cost-of-living crisis, we're also seeing the rampant rise of ‘dupes’. And thanks perhaps to TikTok, Dupes are no longer seen in a negative light, as counterfeit products, but rather as more economically effective products.

Promoted by Tiktok, the hashtag "#dupe" has over 3 billion views, and "I found the perfect dupe" has become a popular hook for hundreds of thousands of viral creator videos. The trend started first in the beauty segment and has unabashedly extended to clothes, tech, and even groceries. Gen-Zers are not bothered by the knock-off stigma, rather they think it is a flex to find and buy a dupe. 

And now, for better or for worse, brands seemed to have joined the bandwagon.

For the independent haircare brand Olaplex, the hashtag #OlaDupe seemed alarming. On TikTok alone, it had close to 4.7 million views. But the brand saw this as an opportunity rather than a threat and launched the campaign ‘OlaDupe’, with the tagline, ‘The only genuine OlaPlex Dupe’. It was an ode to the brands' patented technology and a clap back at cheaper alternatives.

In a similar vein, Whole Foods posted a #DupeAlert video about the ‘dupe snacks’ it sells: organic and gluten-free versions of Oreos, Coca-Cola, and Cheez-Its. And in May this year, athleisure giant lululemon hosted “a dupe swap” encouraging customers to bring in a knock-off pair of their viral leggings and swap them for an original.  

Brands seem to be getting more and more accepting of having knock-offs of their product, and clearly some are even boasting of shelving dupes. Is the normalisation of dupe culture a problem? How should brands react? Is it the end of authenticity as we know it? 

We test the waters with industry experts. 

Sandie Dilger, Chief Strategy Officer, TBWA

#dupepage and #dupesoftiktok may well have millions of followers on TikTok, but the idea of dupes is by no means a new one.

Most of the U.S was inspired by European cities, replica artworks became hugely popular in the mid nineteenth century and many of us non-Tik Tokers spent one night this summer dancing along to holograms of an erstwhile famous band. For household brands, own label products and ranges are essentially the ‘original’ dupe on a brand and they most certainly didn’t appear today or yesterday.

What these ‘dupes’ do offer, is actually a very helpful foil for brands to restate their originality or superiority in a way that feels grounded in truth rather than simply boastful. Heinz (even when it isn’t, it has to be), McVitie’s (There’s only one) and Warburtons (Samuel L.Jackson as Johnathan Warburton) have recently got noticed by ‘leaning in’ to the fact that they are often copied as a way to reassert their leadership (and justify their price premium). So far from just being the sincerest form of flattery, acknowledging and embracing the dupes, when done well, can lead to even greater authenticity for the originals.

Jonathan Brown, Strategy Partner at McCann London

When the going gets tough, the dupes get going.

When the 2008 financial crash kicked in, Aldi [a McCann client] was seen as being too cheap to admit to visiting. Instead, we gave consumers the financial lifeline to simply change their supermarket not their lifestyles with the underlying thought being that 'it’s not that we’re cheap, it’s that everyone else is expensive'. And with that insight, the creative format of Like Brands was born with Jean’s now infamous quip – ‘I don’t like tea, I like gin.’

15 years have passed since Jean rose to tipsy fame and in that time, we’ve seen discounters accelerate from around 3 per cent market share to 17 per cent. Not all Jean’s doing, no, but it did mark a pivotal moment when Britain started to get a taste for dupes and marks the start of Aldi’s journey toward being the leading Dupermarket in the UK. During this time we’ve all been conditioned to Dupermarketing. Where once people were trying to pass off dupes, now we are consciously duping and getting badge value for it. And that’s where the energy is.

The truth is that the funniest and most engaging comms often come from the dupes with their tongue in cheek wit that makes you feel in the know for buying into their smart world. As we live through another cost-of-living crisis we are seeing the world of dupes thrive – beyond just grocery. And with dupe products comes a need for humour in the comms. A need for a knowing smile and a sense that we-know-that-you-know-that-we-know-that-they-know-that-we-know-what’s going on here. Dupe culture will always be around. But the moment it stops trending is the moment you know the economy is back on the front foot again. And the moment that the ads get boring again.

Rachel Porter, Influence creative strategy director, Ogilvy UK

“Although it may feel as though "dupe culture" is a new trend spearheaded by TikTok, product dupes have been trending within the influencer and social space for years.

Comparing historical search trends, there is a clear uplift in Google searches for "dupe" from the general population in the last few years, but the social landscape looks very different. In fact, there were more YouTube searches for "dupe" in April 2017 (before TikTok had even launched in the UK) than there have been in any month since. The demand for dupes hasn't necessarily changed but has become more prevalent on TikTok as the platform has prioritised their e-commerce offering.

For brands looking to tap into "viral" moments, this is a perfect example of requiring social natives on your team who can keep their finger on the pulse of the social landscape, identify trends in real-time and allow your brand to create truly reactive content at the speed of culture. For example, there was a "dupe" audio trend in January where creators browsed a store, showed product dupes to the camera and yelled "dupe" for each one - a simple way for brands to tap into a trending moment. 

It could be argued that Olaplex or Lululemon's recent campaigns are a lesson in clever social listening rather than tapping into trends. Organic content is already being created about dupes for Olaplex and Lululemon products, and by identifying that this conversation existed online, they were able to design a clever way for the brand to leverage the demand by partnering with influencers who were already recommending dupe products. The same is not true for all brands, and identifying which trends are relevant for your brand is equally as important as being able to identify social trends in the first place. 

The down side? Viewers of Olaplex's recent "Oladupé" campaign are leaving comments sharing real product dupes on the campaign content, largely discrediting the campaign messaging that Olaplex can't be "duped". 

If your brand is already being duped online, then joining the conversation by creating content around a consistently trending social phenomenon would make sense. My word of warning - act fast, before the buzzword becomes oversaturated and everyday social consumers becoming uninterested.” 

Ben Jaffé, Chief Strategy Officer, FCB London

If you’ve got a great product that people love, it’s only natural that it’ll be copied. And as Oscar Wilde said, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. To imitate and emulate are part of human nature, it’s how we have evolved as a species. We copy, we improve, we innovate. So, I think brands should see dupes as the sincerest form of flattery. What’s important is how brands respond to dupes. Olaplex isn’t fighting dupe culture, it’s playing with it, and better still it’s profiting from it. If you don’t want to play in dupe culture, the incentive should be to innovate. Dupes could spur you on to make an even better product.

Emma de la Fosse, Chief Creative Officer, Edelman UK

There is no such thing as cheap. Somebody, or something, always pays. The farmer or the animal pays when supermarkets sell at a discount. Some poor person toiling away in a sweatshop making ‘dupes’ pays just because we won’t or can’t pay the price for the real designer bag.

While I acknowledge that there is an obscene mark up on designer products and trendy make up brands, we also have to remember the number of people just like you and me working in the creative industries who earn a living designing these things. And their wages need to be paid. The counterfeiters by-pass the creative process and piggyback someone else’s innovation and hard work. As people who work in the creative industry ourselves, should we really be condoning and supporting that by buying knock offs? The cost of living crisis isn’t when you can’t afford a pair of lululemon leggings. It’s when you can’t afford to pay your heating bills and put food on the table.

Kanika Bali, Strategy Director, Wunderman Thompson

The proliferation of dupe culture presents a challenge for brands, as it has the potential to undermine their value proposition and affect loyalty. Dupe culture is here to stay and is not a temporary phenomenon. Economic uncertainty and the influence of social media continue to drive consumers towards affordable alternatives. However, as Gen Z's income is predicted to surpass that of millennials by 2031, there is potential for a shift in purchasing behaviour towards quality and longevity. Gen Z's strong focus on environmental consciousness could also lead them to recognise the unsustainability of fast fashion and cheap knockoffs. 

Luckily brands have the opportunity to proactively protect themselves against the erosion of their brand name caused by dupes. They should respond by emphasising the quality, sustainability, durability and uniqueness of their products, whilst engaging with their audience in a manner that goes beyond the transactional. When brands establish community and personal affinity with their customers, they own an intangible piece of brand equity that cannot be recreated in a duplicate product. Social listening strategies can have significant impact here: to identify duplicate products and mitigate their adverse impact through legal channels for intellectual property protection. 

Authenticity remains crucial in appealing to Gen Z consumers, who value transparency, mission-driven brands, and a genuine connection with the companies they support. By fostering these relationships and staying true to their values, brands can navigate the challenges posed by dupe culture and maintain their relevance in the market.


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