When Copying Is Just Fitting Inby Chung Joon (Contributing Writer)
As you travel around Asia, you will see pizza parlors that look like Pizza Hut but not quite, cars that look like a Mercedes Benz except for the hood ornament and the ride and any number of products that can be mistaken for the real thing. In other words, copying is the order of the day. Are Asians ripping off American and European businesses?
From an Asian perspective, it's no such thing. The imitators have merely acknowledged the market leaders' standards. It is a bit like dressing up for a formal function.
The idea of copying in the process of developing an archetype is to emulate the market leader but to provide a legitimate alternative.
What about standards? Should a copied product perform as well as the original? Well, put it this way: Merely looking like a Prada, Gucci, BMW or Pizza Hut is not a disgrace. For a majority of Asians, it seems, it doesn't matter as long as they get something that they would like to regard as superior, however vaguely. Of course, superior calls for high price, which means an easy justification. Besides, it will be hard to convince makers to stop reaping profits.
As a practicing designer, I take pride in developing original, world-class designs. But customers often push us with very specific requests for copies, which can be frustrating. I have had to come to terms with this phenomenon.
This desire to use a design from a successful brand comes from a deep-seated insecurity - not knowing how to choose an original. The customer is afraid of making a mistake. Confucian hierarchy dictates that the client chooses the design. Not the designer? No, the designer is only a lowly artisan.
Faced with the possibility of making a wrong choice, the decision-maker typically turns to well-known brands and the latest popular designs.
One result is that fads and trends catch on very quickly. In the hippest areas of Seoul, it is difficult to find anyone with pure black hair. Within a year, dyed or bleached hair has become a fashion statement for the young. It now seems almost mandatory to have colored hair to be part of the hip
Keeping up with fads and trends is really all about people's need to belong. Being able to read these trends is what makes marketing in Asia so much fun.
The writer is president of Sympact, a design firm in Seoul, and lectures at the Korean National University of Arts.