Buff Headwear Confronts Knockoff Challenges in Europe

You know you're a success when knockoffs start appearing on the market. Hmm, well sort of. Begun in Spain eight years ago and now sold all over Europe, Buff headwear has seen two companies start to produce their own version of the multi-functional seam-free microfiber wind-resistant tube that can be a hat, a scarf, a headband, a balaclava, or a scrunchie, among other things.
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You know you're a success when knockoffs start appearing on the market. Hmm, well sort of.

Begun in Spain eight years ago and now sold all over Europe, Buff
headwear has seen two companies start to produce their own version of
the multi-functional seam-free microfiber wind-resistant tube that can
be a hat, a scarf, a headband, a balaclava, or a scrunchie, among other
things.

SNEWS® spied what appeared to be the Buffs -- with similar packaging
also -- while at the ispo trade show in Munich, Germany, earlier this
month and stopped dead, unsure what to think. We of course assumed that
Buff would be patented, so how could another company sell and market a
similar product? Especially since the Buff cardboards say "patented
model" on them.

But, no, there are no patents, and patent experts have apparently told
the company that a seamfree tube of microfiber -- like a T-shirt or a
baseball-style cap -- can't be patented. The wording on the package,
which implies a patent, comes from Spain, where the product originated
and the founder did apply for and receive a Spanish patent, U.S.
representative Julian Peppit told SNEWS®. But it hasn't held up since
then, Peppit said. What the company has done is copyright and trademark
all the tricks of merchandising, packaging, slogans, and demo videos
and presentation wording, especially the rather catchy and humorous
demo for which Peppit and his colleague Simon Sledmore are well-known
(If you haven't seen it, it's a must. Go to www.buffusa.com and click on How to Wear a Buff.)

This knock-off business "does in fact lend more weight to the fact that
multi-functional headwear is here to stay," Peppit said, looking on the
bright side for the simple product they call "multifunctional headwear."

Debuted in the United States to great success not much more than a year
ago, Buff -- official Survivor contestant gear -- received its greatest
promotional kick here when it was mentioned and used by name four times
during the last Survivor TV show series. One mention, complete with
snippits of Peppit's hilarious presto-chango act with the headwear,
garnered some $50,000 in sales through the CBS web site that night
alone.

But despite that success, they have barely scratched the surface of the
U.S. market, where they've been on track but with only about 20,000 a
year sold (suggested retail $18.50). That compares to 2 million a year
sold in Europe, mostly in motorbike, cycling and outdoor markets. And
with those kinds of sales and Buff putting in all the money and work
for marketing and promotion, Peppit said, it's clear why other
companies in Europe would decide to try to nab a share -- especially
when they can undercut the Buff price there by 10-15 percent. And
already in Europe, the name "Buff" is becoming slightly generic, like
Kleenex or Hoover, thanks to all the grassroots marketing Buff has done
there.

But the product can't be sold without explanation, which is why Peppit
came up with the demo that explains quickly what you can do with this
tube of fabric. And it's also a product that can't be sold without
enthusiasm -- one dealer in the United Kingdom in a tiny 10-x-15-foot
space has sold some $30,000 retail in Buff headwear in the last eight
months.

"The potential is enormous, if you get behind it," Peppit said.

One competitor is Germany-based ProFeet GmbH, which makes socks and
also distributes gloves and sun-protection products. It calls its
product Multifunctional Lifestyle Headwear and its literature and web
site (www.had-headwear.de)
has drawings that show how it can be worn that are uncannily similar to
Buff's. In a design departure from Buff, however, ProFeet also has
kid's versions, and others with catchy designs by artists Keith Haring
and Herman.

"There's nothing we can do about
that," Peppit said about the competition. His goal now is to simply run
faster and farther than the competition while also being more creative.

SNEWS® View:
Until the market gets larger in the United States, we doubt we'll see
knockoffs flourish here. A smart marketing guy will realize that
copycats can actually help broaden a market for the product, although
it's tough to see your marketing investment help somebody else's
business. We tried one of the copycats, and although it looked and felt
identical, there must have been something different with the knit
because it was quite snug -- nearly annoyingly snug -- when worn as a
headband. Like many copycat products, there can be just enough not
quite right with its manufacturing, that the original may win out in
the long run -- despite a slightly higher price.

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