It’s infuriating to create and sell a product, only to see others copy it. Floor van de Water, founder of by LouLou, registered her trademark and design. In this entry, she shares her experience and talks about how it worked to her advantage.
Floor: “10 years ago, I started my business 'Moois op maat'. My first client was a bag manufacturer. I ended up working for them almost by accident and before I knew it I was designing collections of bags for them. While doing that work, I came up with the idea of creating a wallet with a compartment for your mobile phone. You don't always need a bag, but your phone and wallet are essential. I developed the product, adding a mirror, and a clutch handle to make the wallet more practical. Then, I started thinking about the name. My own name is Floor van de Water, but that is not really suitable. It had to be something that I felt comfortable with, and that was France and Paris. I had the 40s and 50s in mind. It had to inspire trust and be timeless. I came up with 'LouLou'. It struck me as a cute, up-beat name. I didn't want a name that was too cumbersome or serious. At that point in time, I was one of the first to put 'by' in front of a name. The name became 'by LouLou' and the product became 'SLB: Smart Little Bag'.”
What made you think of registering your product?
“Back then, I was enrolled in a first-time entrepreneur programme at the Chamber of Commerce. There was a seminar about trademarks and I spoke to a representative of BOIP. I learnt that if I was going to put all my energy into building the trademark, I also needed to protect it. It didn't seem very complicated to do, so I did it within a year of launching the product.
I registered the abbreviation SLB, but not the full name. 'Smart Little Bag' is a literal description of the product and that is not allowed. I also registered the name 'by LouLou' as a trademark and got design registration for the first, most important designs.”
How did you go about registering?
“I went to BOIP's offices. A staff member explained the registration process very clearly. Things like, the drawings have to be crystal clear and the description plain and functional, something which I find difficult to do. I then filed the design application. In my case, I see registration as a deterrent to warn people off ripping off your design. Without registration, you don't have a leg to stand on.
And thank goodness I did it: my product filled a gap in the market and, from the moment we introduced it, it became very popular and lots of retailers wanted it. After a while, you see other manufacturing brands producing their own copies of your design. These are people in the same sector, including big chains and brands.
Because I had registered the design, I could stop the counterfeiting. If I hadn't, other operators would have just continued selling it regardless. I had the registration and could prove that I had had the idea first, and that was enough to scare a lot of them off. I had a serious deterrent, and nobody wants to take risks. Even big players, who had initially claimed that the original design was theirs, stopped.”
How did you discover that other businesses and companies were planning to sell your design?
"By chance. The first time, I was working with two sales agents and we were at a trade fair in Utrecht in the Netherlands. A customer of ours came to return something and took the receipt out of what looked like ‘our’ wallet but was made of a different type of leather. It turned out that it was an exact copy, even the lining was the same, but it didn’t have our trademark, or our charms hanging from it. Later, I spotted our design in a brochure of a chemist’s chain, and just walking through stores, I would see the design on display. I think it’s amazing how many businesses steal ideas.”
So, in fact, they were already selling your design before you found out?
“In a lot of cases, yes. I also intercepted one attempt at a trade fair. They were going to showcase their new collection at the fair. I walked by the booth and saw my design. I spoke up and they stopped. Large chains that were my customers also started copying it. It was an awful time. That said, I think if I hadn’t registered my design, people would have totally walked all over me.
Oh yeah, and someone in Germany won a design award with our design. It’s just crazy. I said "that is my design, I'm sure of it”. I mean I know I devised the design, but you send a letter and just don't hear anything back. Later, a German lawyer wrote saying that my claim wasn’t true. You don't want to take everyone to court, so you leave it at that, but the warning alone is pretty effective.”
How have things gone with 'by Loulou' since you registered?
“I tried making laptop bags by LouLou, but realised that laptop bags are for a completely different target group. By LouLou is more of a fashion brand. Hence the new trademark, FMME., under which we make business bags for women. FMME. is the culmination of the customer’s search for a good-quality, attractive women’s business bag. Although those attributes sound pretty standard, it is actually very difficult to find such a thing! Our product is so special that it’s really worth a separate trademark. At FMME., we use leather of higher-than-usual quality and there is more finesse in the details and finish. For example, each bag has a compartment lined with RFID-blocking material, to prevent your bank cards being skimmed. The bag can ride securely on a trolley suitcase, has a comprehensive organizer and a special bottle holder. After ten years of experience with by LouLou, we know how a stain from a bottle of water that has slipped over can ruin your bag.
The SLB was a truly original, unique design, whereas in the case of FMME. it is the combination of features and timeless, feminine style that makes the brand special. You cannot protect a combination like that, so I haven’t registered the FMME. Design; it’s too tricky. Although I really believe that we have a unique and super-strong trademark, there are other trademarks selling similar designs.”
You’ve also registered a European trademark. Why did you register the trademark in both the Benelux and in the EU?
“A European-level registration was useful as I wanted to sell across the EU. We did have to restrict the scope of the EU trademark a bit, as a swimsuit brand opposed our original application.”
Do you have tips for other entrepreneurs and companies?
“I have actually marketed the designs that I registered. I have two registrations. When you notice that something is selling, you should definitely register it immediately. It is important to really stake your claim when you put a new design on the market. If I come up with a truly original design again, I will definitely register it. If you know it's new, you should do it. Only time will tell how beneficial to you it may turn out to be."
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