How a Cool Food Product Lost an Important Marketing Advantage - and Died

Recently I was interviewed by a national small business magazine about a topic that is all too real; and very problematic for small businessmen. The author of the story was trying to solve a simple problem that many of us have faced, and face every day. How to protect a product concept that cannot be protected by patents or copyrights? Here is the problem and some thoughts on the best ways to protect your work product.

The product in question in this case was a cake. A simple food product that virtually anyone can make by following the instructions on a cake batter box is not something that typically enjoys patent protection. This cake was a bit unique, however. The cakes designer had crafted a cake in the shape of a baby diaper and posited the delicacy as a morsel to be consumed at baby showers. Even with the diaper profile and the baby shower franchise patent attorneys had advised that there was no legal protection to be had to keep competitors away from possible duplicity.

Our cake entrepreneur began to sell the diaper/baby shower cakes in his local area. He enjoyed some initial success until, lo and behold, one day he walked into the bakery department of a store that carried his food product and next to his confections was a cake in almost the same design as his diaper shaped concoction. He was immediately overcome by a series of emotions ranging from mad to very scared. What could he do to protect the franchise that he felt he had created?

I have never met the cake designer who was now in this conundrum. My only knowledge of the situation was conveyed to me by the lady reporter assembling the story for her monthly publication. However, I have known many entrepreneurs, inventors and small businesses that have found themselves in similar spots.

The reporter wanted to know what marketing steps, strategies or options the cake maker could have taken to protect his first to market advantage. Was it too late to re-establish his advantageous position as the creator of the baby shower confection?

In the consumer product marketplace, if a product is unique and successful, it will almost always be duplicated in some form or other. The goal of the copycat is to get as close to the original as possible without infringing on patents or trademarks. The commercial goal of any serious product cloner is to sponge off the consumer awareness and excitement created by the original product and siphon revenues.

Food products are particularly difficult to formally protect. Secret recipes and trade secrets are often utilized to create a mystery barrier between the creator/owner and the idea thief seeking to replicate the taste and appearance of a foodstuff. The best method to utilize in protecting a products position in the marketplace is to develop a pre-launch marketing strategy that closes the door on competitors as much as possible by enhancing the natural “first to market advantage” that any original item enjoys.

My marketing consulting firm is regularly approached by product developers who have web-sites, appear on local television and radio and have promotional articles written about them and their ideas. They very often have no inventory, no sales model, no business plan and no source of supply fully vetted and ready to manufacture. They are simply advising the public, and prey artists that are always prowling for new opportunities, that they are ripe for exploitation. They are full of themselves and only shoot off their big toe while embellishing a product that is not commercially available.

The cake designer in question tried to run before he was ready to walk. He placed an unprotected design in the marketplace and allowed competitors to pounce. His retail footprint was too small to enable him to brand his cake design as the “Cadillac” of the category, a category that he had created and should have been able to reap long term benefits from.

The wise course of action would have been to pre-sell the marketplace with a coordinated, scheduled product launch date. Book orders from as many retailers as possible in the marketplace. Give the retailers a sell-through program, sampling, sales collateral, signs, coupons, a small cable television media buy, and media publicity generated through targeted press releases announcing the stores and dates the shower cakes would be available. A customized decoration feature could also be utilized to enhance the unique features of the service. Up-sell products such as cookies and cupcakes might have provided the brand with more attractive retail potential and further differentiate the cakes from competitors.

These and other steps should have been taken BEFORE the entrepreneur introduced his product to consumers and competitors. If the market had been pierced with multi-store distribution and a small, but vigorous support program, the “alpha” inventor would have been cemented as “the” vendor in town for shower cakes. Expansion to wedding showers and other special event parties through themed cakes were natural line extensions available to keep the business growing, creatively fresh and identifying significant unique points of difference from the copy cats.

Rather than owning the towns market for shower cakes, the creator of the concept now finds himself playing second fiddle to a larger baker. He is losing shelf space and distribution points. He is discouraged and frantic.

“You only get one chance to make a great first impression” is not just words, but a hard fact. Entrepreneurs must move aggressively to strike the market before competitors. However, they must move with a plan that covers all contingencies and makes them appear larger, stronger and more virile than they might actually be. Remember David was the underdog to Goliath, but he was able to slay the giant using guile and stealth. Successful entrepreneur’s must think more like David.

Author's Bio: 

Geoff Ficke has been a serial entrepreneur for almost 50 years. As a small boy, earning his spending money doing odd jobs in the neighborhood, he learned the value of selling himself, offering service and value for money.

After putting himself through the University of Kentucky (B.A. Broadcast Journalism, 1969) and serving in the United States Marine Corp, Mr. Ficke commenced a career in the cosmetic industry. After rising to National Sales Manager for Vidal Sassoon Hair Care at age 28, he then launched a number of ventures, including Rubigo Cosmetics, Parfums Pierre Wulff Paris, Le Bain Couture and Fashion Fragrance.

Geoff Ficke and his consulting firm, Duquesa Marketing, Inc. ( has assisted businesses large and small, domestic and international, entrepreneurs, inventors and students in new product development, capital formation, licensing, marketing, sales and business plans and successful implementation of his customized strategies. He is a Senior Fellow at the Page Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, Business School, Miami University, Oxford, Ohio.