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Patanjali mimics the market leaders in packaging

But Patanjali goes a step beyond that, more closely aping well-established brands in naming and/or outward appearance. Sure, it’s something a newcomer might do, but wouldn’t a firm with ambitions of ruling the market want to set itself apart?

Bijoor points out that Patanjali is different from every other arriviste new kid on the block in one crucial aspect. “What Patanjali has done is that, on the one hand, it mimics the market leaders in packaging, but on the other hand, it militates against them in advertising.”

Reveling of the Imagined Glory

He’s alluding to Patanjali’s desi/swadeshi marketing peg—the revisionist retelling of Ayurveda’s imagined glory in days long gone. Pit this against foreign companies with their modern products. The irony, of course, is that the likes of Hindustan Unilever have operated in India as a local company for more than 85 years.

But as they say in marketing, perception is reality—and Patanjali has cleverly come up with a marketing message that might not be strictly true but has resonated enough with its target audience to strike a chord worth thousands of crores.

It might also be worth pointing out that the company follows a clever stratagem of selectively highlighting or under-emphasizing the “Patanjali” brand across its portfolio of products. With most of its ayurvedic supplements and more “traditional” products, the Patanjali brand is front and center.

But for many of its other offerings, prominent display is given to generic terms like “atta noodles” or “butter cookies”, while the Patanjali brand name sits quietly in a corner.

See the image below to witness how this plays out in an actual store:

Come for the Ayurveda, stay for the noodles, biscuits et al.

Which brings us to the second question—is this even legal? Short answer: yep, pretty much.

The long answer

Let’s start by going back to Bijoor’s point about a common semiotic language of branding. While that is undoubtedly true, it is also a fact that the large FMCG companies have an unspoken Omerta code on what is allowed and what isn’t.

A tacit quid-pro-quo that spells out what you can “borrow” from one product and, in turn, what you allow others to “borrow” from your own. Moreover, most of the time, they try to differentiate their products; set themselves apart from the competition.

And coming to Patanjali again, in a strictly legal sense, there are not many competitors can accuse it of in a court of law, even if they were so disposed. This is not to say, however, that there have been no legal claims made against Patanjali.

In March 2016, rival consumer goods company Emami took the company to court claiming that Patanjali’s Kesh Kanti hair oil was very similar to its own Kesh King brand. Both in name and also in the font and presentation of the brand. And that Patanjali had also copied the “unique, aesthetic and innovative shape” of the bottle the hair oil comes in.

The Calcutta High Court found merit in Emami’s claims and issued a preliminary injunction against Patanjali. But in May, both sides settled out of court. Patanjali still has a similar-looking Kesh Kanti hair oil bottle listed on its website.

Out of court settlement

Emami declined to comment on why the matter was settled out of court and what the terms of the settlement were.

Patanjali did not respond to an email seeking comment, sent on 26 September.

Ken spoke to IP rights lawyer Vaibhav Vutts to get an expert take on the issue.

According to Vutts, a company has a strong case to claim an infringement or violation of its intellectual property only when there’s a particularly blatant rip-off—a one-to-one copy of name, design, brand, look and feel.

But generally, the issue is more complex.

For one, every product category has certain terms or types of imagery that are fairly generic to the category. You can’t very well complain that someone is copying your noodles’ packaging just because both your packets have pictures of noodles. Ditto for words or phrases such as “atta noodles”.