Opinion

Felix Salmon

How the WSJ magazine fails its readers

Felix Salmon
Sep 13, 2010 00:30 UTC

Lucas Conley’s piece on Ugg for the WSJ’s magazine is a perfect example of why the WSJ shouldn’t have a glossy, fashion-friendly magazine.

Conley does a reasonably good job of covering the way in which Deckers Outdoor Corporation, the American company which owns the Ugg trademark, has become a highly-aggressive trademark troll, and in the process has helped to decimate a small but longstanding Australian industry. But having found that story, he buries it, and ends up capitulating to all the evil impulses of the fashion industry.

If you read closely, you’ll find Conley explaining how, despite the fact that “uggs have been a cottage industry in Australia for decades”, Deckers became extremely aggressive when it comes to those small local companies, slapping them with cease-and-desist orders and in general trying as hard as they could to use trademark law to shut down anybody who might be considered a competitor. It won in the US against Koolaburra, a US firm importing sheepskin boots and selling them under the name “ug”, although it lost in Australia against Uggs-n-Rugs, a 32-year-old sheepskin outfitter. But the big picture is clear:

While Deckers may have lost the Australian trademark battle, the company is winning the war. Today, Deckers owns “ugg” trademarks in over 100 countries, protecting them with high-tech anti-counterfeiting tools and a sophisticated network of lawyers, customs officials, corporate coalitions and private investigators. “Counterfeiting is one of the plagues of a popular brand,” says Leah Evert-Burks, Deckers’ inhouse counsel and director of brand protection. “There are some anti-counterfeiting measures I can’t even talk about. It’s amazing what you go through when you get involved in this world.”

By Deckers’ count, last year the company terminated over 20,000 eBay auctions, shut down over 2,500 websites, and accounted for some 60,000 pairs of counterfeit boots seized by customs officials. While Evert-Burks emphasizes that the vast majority were blatant criminal operations out of China (which often glue inexpensive cow suede to the exterior of the boot in place of twinfaced sheepskin), Stewart says he still receives complaints from Australian vendors who have been lumped in with counterfeiters.

Like a global mute button, the threat of legal action has stifled the Australian ugg industry’s efforts to market internationally. The McDougalls claim to have lost 90 percent of their international business since 2004. Their daughter gave up entirely after Deckers shut down her eBay business. “Almost anyone who sells anything with the word ug, ugg or ugh is infringing on their trademark,” Bronwyn says. “There’s no argument.”

At the same time, however, Conley, or his editors, go to great lengths to be as friendly as possible to Deckers. For instance, he doesn’t actually come out and say that uggs have been a cottage industry in Australia for decades: he feels the need to call them “generic uggs” instead, as though they were somehow copying the Deckers Uggs long before the Deckers Uggs even existed.

What’s more, throughout the article, the Deckers product is referred to in all caps, as an UGG. No self-respecting newspaper style guide would ever allow such a thing, but glossy fashion magazines never had any self-respect in the first place, and it’s clear which side of the line the WSJ magazine falls.

Worst of all, however, is the sidebar, which compares Deckers’ boot to the competition:

The UGG Australia Classic boots come in short (midcalf) and tall versions. Any variation on these heights are not genuine UGG boots.

A genuine UGG has the registered trademark symbol ® next to its logo on the label…

Some fakes use synthetic “fleece”.

My emphasis, but you get the point, which almost tips into self-parody here:

Deckers’ UGG boots are made in China, so if the label says “Made in Australia,” it is not an UGG.

The point is that there are lots of Ugg boots. The most popular Uggs are made by a US company in China. That company owns a bunch of trademarks, which somehow means that the WSJ can talk with a straight face about “genuine UGG boots”, while saying that all other Ugg boots are fakes. But the fact is that an Australian Ugg boot, made by a company which long predates the Ugg trademark, is by any sensible definition just as genuine, if not more so, than the boots that the WSJ is falling over itself teaching us to recognize and distinguish.

Yet somehow Conley feels impelled to inform us that if a boot is made in Australia — the home of the Ugg boot — then “it is not an UGG”.

To give an example of how ridiculous this all is, imagine that an American company — maybe even Deckers, you never know — decided to buy up a small knife-making company in Thiers, France. And say that after doing so, it started to register the name Laguiole, and the famous bee symbol, in jurisdictions around the world.

Deckers then decides to outsource production of Laguiole knives to China, while at the same time slapping anybody else trying to sell Laguiole knives with a cease-and-desist order. It starts impounding any Laguiole knives which are imported into the US, and shuts down any market in Laguiole knives on eBay or in other marketplaces.

Laguiole knives have been made by thousands of French craftsmen for over 150 years, but suddenly there would only be one “genuine Laguiole® knife”, and all the others would, overnight, be branded “counterfeits” or “fakes”; their sales would collapse, while Deckers would essentially hijack all of the brand value which has been painstakingly built up over the generations. And heaven forfend that anybody else try to make Laguiole knives in China — those would get seized at customs, and branded as “blatant criminal operations” by Deckers’ in-house counsel.

If that were to happen, one would hope that the WSJ would try to expose the evil trademark troll, instead of running gushing articles about how the company was serving up “stunning results in the midst of a global recession”. It certainly wouldn’t — one hopes — tell its readers how to make sure they were buying a genuine Laguiole® knife rather than an expensive French “fake”.

Conley mentions in passing, in his piece, that after Deckers lost the lawsuit in Australia, it failed to pay certain legal costs of the winning side, as required under Australian law. If he ever asked Deckers counsel about this, there’s no sign of it in the story. Instead, he concludes with a paean to a highly-successful company:

Although UGG is not the haute couture brand it was years ago—the darling of fashion spreads, the envy of A-list gift bags—its sales are bigger than ever. That “alpha consumer,” the mother picking up her kids at private school in the Range Rover? While she may no longer roll up in a pair of the latest UGG boots, her counterparts at the neighboring public school are pulling away in Explorers full of UGG-boot-wearing adolescents. UGG Australia has become a mainstream brand, always in stock—found in several stores in any mall—and begrudgingly approved of even by its critics for its comfort and utility. It’s an appropriate irony; the humble boot of the masses has come full circle—albeit with a trademark this time. And that’s fashion, according to Simonton. “Things come back,” he says, “but they’re never quite the same.”

Well, “irony” is one way of putting it: the humble boot of the masses is still a humble boot of the masses, but now it’s wrapped up in aggressively-enforced trademarks, ensuring that all the profits from that humble boot accrue to a single multi-billion-dollar multinational corporation. But yes, “that’s fashion”. And you can be sure that a glossy fashion-focused magazine is never going to cut against the grain of the fashion industry when it comes to issues surrounding trademark law and intellectual property.

Which is why it’s crazy that the WSJ tries to cover the fashion industry from within the covers of a glossy fashion-focused magazine. The conflicts are far too big — and, as this story shows, the winner in those conflicts is always going to be the big fashion multinational, rather than the magazine’s readers.

Update: It turns out there already is a Laguiole trademark troll! Thanks to vb2b, in the comments, for the link.

COMMENT

I just discovered this article and it contains a lot of inaccuracies. It also omits several important facts. Before the mid-1990s, when Deckers bought the rights to the “UGG” trademark (and the company Ugg Holdings) from an Australian, and tiny companies with similar names in places like Cornwall and New Zealand, a typical Australian ugg boot “factory” consisted of a shack at the edge of a sheep farm, with two or three people working there — all members of the sheep herdsman’s family. They made, at most a few hundred thousand dollars a year. Ugg boots were considered a lower-class, trashy type of footwear, worn by young suburban thugs called “bogans” who didn’t have any money. The American equivalent term would be “white trash.” In the UK you call them “chavs.”

Then Deckers embarked on a very clever and expensive marketing campaign, giving away thousands of pairs of boots not only to celebrities such as Pamela Anderson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Cameron Diaz and Oprah Winfrey, but also the entourage and fans for each celebrity. They carefully sought product placements in trendy films and TV series. The strategy paid off and Oprah named UGG brand boots one of her “Favorite Things” two consecutive years.

The UGG brand boot is now a high fashion item like Jimmy Choo shoes and Ralph Lauren sportswear. Instead of a few hundred thousand dollars in sales to a crowd of suburban Australian chavs, Deckers has just reached US$1 billion in annual sales worldwide. They have every right to protect the lucrative worldwide market that they have created, because they’re the ones who created it. The little Australian shacks on the edges of the sheep farms have every right to sell their wares in Australia but Deckers planted the seeds in the rest of the world, and now they’re reaping a bountiful harvest.

http://www.pjstar.com/business/x18959986 31/Ugg-kicking-it-in-the-U-S

Posted by JimDavis | Report as abusive

The semiotics of Larry Summers’s neckwear

Felix Salmon
Oct 10, 2009 23:38 UTC

Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker profile of Larry Summers was very good, but in many ways it’s the accompanying photograph, by Martin Schoeller, which is even more intriguing: it shows the key members of Barack Obama’s economic team striding purposefully away from the White House, with intense lighting from both front and back. There’s a certain Reservoir Dogs feeling to it, with Christy Romer playing the Chris Penn odd-man-out role.

But here’s the thing: what’s up with the men’s ties?

ties2.jpg

They’re all purple burgundy, and although it’s hard to tell from the lighting, they’re all virtually identical shades of purple burgundy. But each one has a different density of yellow spots, from Peter Orszag, whose tie is positively teeming with the things, through to Tim Geithner, whose tie has none at all. Summers is closer to the Orszag end of the spectrum, while Jared Bernstein is closer to Geithner.

It all reminds me of nothing so much as the semiotics of shirt collars in Martin Scorsese’s Casino, where the more pointed your collar was, the more senior you were within the crime organization. But the meaning of the yellow dots, I have to say, defeats me. Does anybody have the decoder ring?

COMMENT

I’m sure there’s something similar in Goodfellas, but yes, more than anything it looks like Reservoir Dogs to me. Although that’s unsettling if you take it too far, since it means the heist is about to go all wrong.

As for the burgundy ties, I’ve been out of that game too long. I remember the era of the Pink Tie, and the Obligatory Ferragamo Tie With Some Sort Of Tiny Whimsical Animals, but now I must defer to those who keep up better with this sort of thing.

Wasn’t there some minor flap a few months ago about Summers wearing a Harvard tie? Wouldn’t that be crimson, or burgundyish?

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The tattooed MBA

Felix Salmon
Aug 20, 2009 20:03 UTC

The conversation in the comments to my tattoo post has become very interesting, and now Ryan Avent weighs in with his take:

Most people don’t tend to see things the way Mr Salmon does, but rather take outward signs at face value. Most jobseekers do dress up for interviews. Most young people seeking professional work do not get large, visible tattoos. Firms pay for fancy offices and hire college graduates, even though fancy offices and college graduates are expensive and shabby offices and a staff of non-graduates might signal that the firm is very good at what it does—so good that it doesn’t need to bother with the normal trappings.

In general, I think it tends to be much more costly to depart from convention than to keep to it, at least until a reputation has been established.

I’m reminded of this recent post by James Kwak, formerly of McKinsey & Co:

It’s not what you learn at business school that matters, it’s the screening function. Top business schools screen for the attributes that certain types of companies, including consulting firms and investment banks, value – above-average intelligence, ambition, presentability, ability to get along with others, willingness to follow orders, and a strong streak of conformism. McKinsey recruits people with Ph.D.s (and certain other advanced degrees) as well because the Ph.D. is an indicator of intelligence and (to some extent) ambition, but it is considerably harder to get a consulting job as a Ph.D. from a top school than as an MBA from a top school because of the other things that an MBA signals.

I think there’s a gap in the market here, for a new high-end management consultancy, and/or boutique investment bank, which only hires people with tattoos and which doesn’t employ a single MBA. Even if only a minority of potential clients see things the way I do, that could easily be enough people to build a strong and sustainable business.

Once upon a time, in fact, the City of London was full of “barrow boys” who had left school at 16 and made it rich as traders. In the US, shops like Bear Stearns and Salomon Brothers often took great pride in being staffed with hungry guys from the streets, people with the opinion that it’s making money which matters, not being respectable. Even now, certain corners of the market, like the inter-dealer brokers, have similar characteristics. But as an ever-growing proportion of smart kids goes first to a good college before even looking for a job, and as these firms become better established, it becomes very easy to fall back onto hoary conventions when it comes to staffing.

I’m dedicating this post to a certain heavily-tattooed bank flack who never went to university and who has suffered as a result — more for the lack of formal education than for the ink, it must be said. No one thinks that at this point in her career what she did or didn’t learn as an undergraduate would make the slightest bit of difference to her performance in the job, but somehow it’s always easier to promote someone else. It’s a sign of overcaution and laziness on the part of her managers. And in theory there’s no reason why that laziness and overcaution can’t be exploited by their rivals.

COMMENT

This is for Dave regarding his statement above.

Even though Bear Stearns had to be bailed out by JPM does not mean that it wasn’t a good shop. Excuse me if I’m wrong but the majority of businesses started in the US don’t even make it a year and Bear was around since 1923. I don’t know about you but I think an 85 year run is a pretty good one. There are only a select few large companies out there today that could boast of a longer existence.

Just figured I would point out pure ignorance.

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The economics of tattoos

Felix Salmon
Aug 19, 2009 17:29 UTC

Drewbie left me a comment this morning talking about people interviewing for jobs and not getting them, just because they had visible tattoos. I can well believe it. But at the same time, precisely because of this discrimination, I tend to both expect and receive much better service from people with visible tattoos. (Update: Thanks to Sebastian, in the comments, for spelling out the logic here.)

Businesses with tattooed employees are signalling to me that they have better service, and as a result I’m more likely to try them out. Given how well such messages work, how long can it be until the discrimination against the tattoos swings the other way, and it becomes easier to get a public-facing job if you have a tattoo? And if that happens, will the pendulum swing back to where we are right now, or will we just settle on a boring happy middle where no one cares about such things any longer?

COMMENT

while i believe that not all people with visible tattoos are the best choice for any particular job, i still feel that they should have the same chances as anyone else with or without visible tattoos! i have been at the receiving end of this discrimination, i was “hired” at olive garden immediately after my interview, but when i shook the managers hand after he told me i had the job, he saw my tattoos on my wrists and told me if i could cover them with make up then my job was secure. needless to say i went out and bought special (100 dollar) makeup to cover these tattoos. and when i went back to show him they were covered, he told me i couldnt have the job anymore. i understand that some companies have tattoo policies, but they shouldnt give someone a job, tell them what to do to keep it, then take it away. this is why i think everyone should be given the same opportunities when it comes to being hired at a job, because i clearly was what they wanted, but because i have ink it was all taken back. STOP DISCRIMINATING AGAINST PEOPLE WITH TATTOOS! ty :)

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Enough with the ties already

Felix Salmon
Aug 19, 2009 14:52 UTC

I’m with the CEO in this story, and the anonymous female friend: never wear a tie to a job interview at a startup. And in general, don’t wear a tie to a job interview where you won’t be wearing a tie day-to-day.

There’s a syndrome I’ve seen quite often and has never made sense to me: manager A, who rarely wears a suit, interviews candidate B, who would rarely if ever wear a suit on the job. Yet for the interview, and only because it’s a job interview, both of them wear suits and ties. Not exactly Pareto-optimal.

As for me, I haven’t had much experience interviewing job-seekers (thankfully), but I always feel a bit uncomfortable if they’re wearing a suit and tie. Conversely, my best journalistic interviews with CEOs and finance ministers and the like have been when neither of us have been wearing a tie.

My conclusion? Tying yourself up isn’t conducive to unfettered communication. Which is one reason why I haven’t worn a tie in over a decade. That and the fact that I hate how it feels.

COMMENT

I recently recieved an email about a orientation session for a professional degree that specified business casual attire for the most serious part of the orientation (meeting current practitioners in the field) and was very emphatic that business casual meant no jacket, no tie. I suppose that this email is from someone trying to avoid the over-formal discomfort that Felix talks about, but it’s unusual here because people in the field typically do wear jacket and tie to work. I’ve also never before recieved an invitation that specified maximum dress code rather than minimum dress code. Maybe the tides are turning?

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