Counterfeit “copyright squatters” in China are usually a headache for multinational brands, but for Samsung, a knockoff of legendary skater brand Supreme recently took on a different role: partner.
At a bizarre China launch event for Samsung’s Galaxy A8 phone last month, the brand appeared onstage with representatives from “Supreme Italia,” a copyright squatter label that the real Supreme has denounced as counterfeit and unsuccessfully tried to sue in an Italian court. Because Supreme lost the lawsuit, its Italian doppelganger is legally using the brand’s exact logo in Italy, as well as in Spain under the name Supreme Spain. Real Supreme continues to speak out against the imposter, releasing a statement saying that claims Supreme was working with Samsung were “blatantly false.”
Why would the world’s largest smartphone manufacturer make this controversial partnership? It could have been hoping the brand cachet of Supreme could give it a much-needed boost on Chinese social media. Gartner L2 found that Samsung has the lowest share of engagement among its competitors on Weibo, lagging far behind local giants like Xiaomi. This has mirrored its market share, which has eroded in the world’s largest smartphone market as local players offer the same high-level functionality for much cheaper. The brand never recovered from the hit it took with the Galaxy Note 7 recalls in 2016, going from 20% mainland China market share five years ago to just over 2%.
Chinese consumers weren’t fooled by the “Supreme” partnership, eviscerating Samsung on social media following the launch. Its Greater China digital marketing manager responded to the uproar by posting on his Weibo account that the decision to work with Supreme Italia was made because it had obtained the authorization to use the brand in China. Samsung later backtracked as he deleted the post and Samsung’s official Weibo account announced it was “re-evaluating” the partnership.
A partnership with the real Supreme certainly would have benefited Samsung in the streetwear-obsessed Chinese market. Despite not having an official store there, Supreme is huge in China: it recently inspired a tongue-in-cheek viral craze on Douyin and Weibo in China in which users would put the Supreme logo over ridiculous videos or photos to show that it could make anything cool.
If Supreme did indeed lose the race to get its name copyrighted in China first, it is far from the only brand to face this issue. Apple, Yeezy, and Michael Jordan are a few of the international brand names that have dealt with problems stemming from enterprising locals beating them to the punch. Brands dealing with a squatter have a limited number of expensive options to gain legal rights in China: win a lawsuit, pay off the imitator, or become the US president’s daughter.
Samsung’s not the first brand to try to pull off a Supreme partnership without the original New York-based brand. In June this year, a local Chinese brand launched a fake Supreme collaboration collection complete with an actor hired to pretend to be the president of Supreme. Like Samsung, the brand was also hung out to dry on Chinese social media. Based on these incidents, it should be clear to brands hoping for their own collaboration with a major streetwear label: get the real deal or don’t do it at all, because China’s hypebeasts know better.