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Copycat Car Wrapper Puts Veteran Installer in a Tough Situation

At what point is imitation no longer flattering? Your peers opine on “The Case of the Copycat Killerz.”

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CLARISSA SARLING HAD worked hard, developing a signature style through years of practice, research and personal experience — evolving over hundreds and hundreds of wrap designs and installs: high-impact colors and patterns worthy of any busted-up boxcar or decaying building. Word of her graffiti-inspired work spread at Southern California regional car shows and events, and the schedule for Clarissa’s shop eventually and steadily filled up consistently.

Then, undetectable unless one were looking for it, a customer here, a client there declined an estimate Clarissa’s company would normally land. After a half-dozen or so had passed within just a couple of weeks, Clarissa took notice and contacted each to ask why they had decided against — if the customer cared to share. Those who responded replied they had found another shop to do the job cheaper, and promising the same look and quality. Clarissa considered asking for the name of the company (or companies) undercutting her business, but sensed reluctance among the few customers who had replied. Also, not wanting to overstep or alienate them, she decided to do a little investigating of her own.

ABOUT REAL DEAL

Real Deal scenarios are inspired by true stories, but are changed to sharpen the dilemmas involved and should not be confused with real people or places. Responses are peer-sourced opinions and are NOT a substitute for professional legal advice. Please contact your attorney if you any questions about an employee or customer situation in your own business.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Created by ROLF L’MAO, Signs of the Times’ mascot. Email him at editor@signsofthetimes.com.

Clarissa and her life partner Taylor attended a car show two weekends later in nearby La Jolla. After nearly an hour of scanning the cars both on display and in the parking lot, Clarissa spotted a graffiti-designed wrap on a Hummer that certainly fit the profile of one of the customers she had lost to the two-bit imitator. While Taylor approached the owner with “Cool wrap, m’ man,” and got him turned around, Clarissa — wearing a San Diego Padres baseball cap pulled down to her sunglasses — meandered to the front of the vehicle.

A quick look confirmed the headlights had been handled less than expertly. Installers who don’t remove the lights because it’s too difficult or time consuming sometimes trim along the underside of the light and tuck in the vinyl that’s left. But few know the amount of vinyl available to tuck should be equal to the gap between the bumper and the bottom of the headlight. On this headlight and probably the other one, too, Clarissa could tell more vinyl should have been left to tuck. And up close, the design really kinda sucked. “Probably only looks good going 70 and from a distance,” she murmured as she drifted away to meet back up with Taylor at their designated spot.

“Killerz?” Clarissa asked Taylor upon hearing the name of the copy shop. “Like, with a ‘z’?” Taylor raised an eyebrow and nodded. Clarissa couldn’t find a website but did find them on both Facebook and Instagram. The Killerz “one-room” gallery of wraps included a number that clearly derived from her work. Posts dated back only five months, so they couldn’t have been open long, Clarissa calculated. Google Maps revealed street-view photos of Killerz’ “storefront” sporting a banner for its main ID. The location looked barely a sliver in a series of automotive aftermarket and other little odds and ends in an industrial complex on the other side of town.

This wanna-be had started to cut in on her business — not a huge amount, but given the first few, other price-conscious customers could be tempted to take their business across town. Clarissa wanted to be proud, let them go if they were more worried about saving whatever percent as the price for sacrificing the originality of her designs and the experience of her installers. However, the designs aside, it would take a while for some of the Killerz-installed shortcuts on that Hummer — and probably their other clients’ rides — to start to show themselves.

“So, what to do?” Clarissa asked aloud.

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The Big Questions

  • What would you do if you were Clarissa? Confront the owner of Killerz or rise above their level — and how? Can you even stop a copycat?
Brandon C.
Victoria, BC, Canada

If they are copying the “style” of the wrap, be flattered? If they are stealing designs, contact a lawyer. You don’t own rights to a style of art.

Don B.
Cypress, CA

Open letter to the owner of Killerz with copies to the known customers that have shifted their work to them: “Thank you for imitating our designs and work. It is flattering. Your work is good. However, you would benefit from learning more on how to improve your design and produce and install wraps that look better, are of higher quality and will last longer. Please let us know if you are interested and we will send you a quote to train you and your staff. Sincerely, Clarissa”

Ann M.
Grafton, ND

A judge asked me once when I took a customer to court, “Did you get a downpayment or have him sign a contract?” Lesson learned: Before you spend all that time laying out a wrap, get $ down first and draw up a contract for him to sign. If he balks, nothing lost. You do not want this kind of customer anyway.

Dan W.
Tucson, AZ

“Style” is stealable. In fact, as long as you introduce a certain amount of change to a given graphic, a graphic can be stolen. But anyone who likes your stuff can imitate it, legally, as long as he doesn’t do close copies of your existing work. Signmakers are sometimes called upon to add lettering to an existing sign. Matching the style is automatic if it’s to look right. Instead, emphasize your superiority in your advertising.

Gina E.
Ontario, CA

The article didn’t clarify that there was actually a copyright infringement, which we all know in printing can be tricky. However, the idea that another business is stealing your customers would make anyone furious, especially when your business is ethical and doing a quality service. I suppose we would choose to take the “high road” by educating our customer base and potential customers by writing an informational blog and/or newsletter. This would let people looking to wrap a vehicle know what to look for in a quality product, installation and customer service. Educate, and share your knowledge.

Brian K.
Bloomginton, IN

I came across this sign and I have it hanging in my shop: “Skilled Labor Isn’t CHEAP and Cheap Labor Isn’t Skilled.” I don’t try to compete with people doing it as a “side job.” I do this professionally! Don’t worry about the other guy; just worry about doing the best you can do and word will get around!

Larry M.
El Dorado Hills, CA

Over the years I’ve had copycats duplicate my base program many times, but rarely do they match my premium treatment of clients. Clients are clients because we protect their best interests. Customers are merely sold to. I never argue with a competitor’s pricing. If they say they’re worth less, they must be right!

Scott B.
Herrin, IL

Unfortunately, there is really nothing that can be done. Time will take care of the subordinates. It’s very hard being patient and waiting, but the “cream” always rises to the top, and the “sediment” will always settle to the bottom.

Jean S.
Jacksonville, FL

Unfortunately, it’s not against the law to sell cheap imitations of good products. While I feel for the person who has been “victimized” by having her style copied, there is nothing one can do about this since there is no way to copyright/protect this type of situation from happening. Rather than spending the energy on retaliation, focus on promoting the high-quality products you offer and look for new products and services you can provide. Also, analyze your market — are they predominantly price shoppers? If so, do you need to offer more flexibility in your pricing? Or do you need to find better clients? 🙂

Juan C.
Linden, NJ

There will always be copycats in this and every industry; it is part of being successful in your path. Others will notice and emulate your work formula. The issue will always come down to the quality, expertise and originality of your work. If your clients are only looking for price, then don’t bother chasing them, as they … will always come back to you once they realize their error in the service they received for just a few dollars less. If you create a level of trust, reputation and consistent creative quality that customers talk about, you don’t need to do anything.

Vicki K.
Lynnwood, WA

It’s time to educate the customer!

Brian J.
Gilroy, CA

If you’re that good, like us … [do] nothing. They’ll be out of business in a year or two. I’ve watched many, many shops close because they were undercutting me, and not only do I get the business back at my price, I also get to charge for fixing their mistakes. I started wrapping in ’97 and have had so many try to copy and undercut, but when you’re the best at what you do, you just don’t worry about things like that.

William O’D.
Verona, NJ

Have had it happen many times. Does it get me angry? Yes. I have also seen my work on other shops’ websites. I made a few calls and it was taken down. It happens, but you can’t let it eat you up. I was with a much older signpainter (who was a ‘crackerjack’ of a letterer), when a much younger man came in looking for a job. When he opened his sign kit to show me what he could do, I noticed a few items that clearly linked the box to my letterer friend. I asked “Al” to come in and verify that it was his kit. Al nodded and I discreetly called the police. After a brief interrogation, the detective asked would you like to press charges? Al looked at the man and said “No.” He took a few items out of the kit and said, “Go make a living.” He was the real deal.

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Timothy W.
Frederick, MD

Always take the high road. Imitation is considered one of the highest forms of flatter, by many,
including myself. Focus on the higher-end clients that appreciate your designs and quality. Highlight the steps your shop takes to provide the best possible products. The way you differentiate your shop from others is huge.

Ben P.
Seaford, DE

Something like this really stings. I am sure anyone who has been in business for a while has had this happen. First thing I always did was to be sure it was not our fault that a good customer went somewhere else. Was our pricing fair? Did we alienate them with poor service? If those items are covered properly then there is not much you can do. If these customers were so good then why was their loyalty to you so fleeting? IMHO confronting the other shop that is undercutting you is a waste of time. And yes it makes you look petty and insecure. Move on. Continue to educate your customers on what separates you from all the others. In my experience, if the other company keeps doing work like this, they won’t be in business long.

Edward S.
Mount Morris, MI

I’ve had this kind of “problem” many, many times over my 50-plus years in business. These “wanna-be copycats” would almost always go belly-up when they can’t change with the times and the market and soon thereafter fade away. Yet I’m still here, relevant and doing cutting-edge work.

Cindy G.
Placerville, CA

At first I’d be totally offended and have a bad feeling about that client. Then, after thinking about it, I would feel kinda special … like “someone thought my idea was so good they copied it!”

Then I would think about how whacked things are getting now … I would also make note of clients and not do any more drawings for them, if they ever came back — and I would let them know what they did was wrong. They may have gotten my design and saved some money, but I guarantee the job will not last as long as if I installed it. You get what you pay for.

Derek A.
Columbus, OH

It’s a sad fact of the biz, any biz, that copycats and mooches will try to take from a visible, unique and reputable business or source. Trying to beat our heads against the wall to stop these copycats won’t have the desired effect, other than a lump on the noggin. Best advice would be to continue your path with the quality and uniqueness that got others to try to take from you. I’d spend time educating your clients and prospects that while there will always be knockoffs that borrow or flat out take your unique design and style. What additionally separates you is your skill in installation as well as the design work and better understanding of the process and juxtapose of design and real world application. Letting the client know the copycat’s install work may lead to failures and errors that your skillset won’t. It’s the “you get what you pay for” conundrum. You may consider copywriting your work and promoting that aggressively so prospects will know.

Robert B.
Oakdale, CT

Sit tight. Poor quality will come back to bite them in the ass and eventually most of the clients will be back for quality work.

Penny B.
Philadelphia

I would show a new customer a video of a wrap and point out the areas where her company’s work is far and above the guy across town. Also a guarantee. The other company “promises” good work, but time will tell. Her shop has no unhappy customers. She can be proud of her work and put a 3M stamp of approval (if available) much like a guarantee. Other shops may not be able or willing to do that because of the shortcuts that company is taking. Good work deserves a good price. Testimonials also for her website. Take off on the old Maytag ad where the repairman is sitting by the telephone waiting for a repair call but none come because Maytag washers and dryers do not break down — simply the best. Another idea is to have a demo at her shop and invite prospective customers to see how a vehicle wrap is done properly.

Frank S.
Albany, NY

“Original and best” or similar tag line needs to be featured on website, social media and promo gear. And in person mention, “We’re worth the money.”

Alex L.
Brandon, MS

She needs to [brand] her work so people that see her work can compare it to the cheap imitation. “Clarissa Original,” etc. It won’t take long for clients to recognize the difference in her work and the cheap imitation, and most will take pride in paying a little extra for the quality and originality of her work.

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