Billion-dollar products that were complete rip-offs

BELIEVE it or not, many of the world’s most popular products were actually ideas ripped off from someone else.

EVERY time you eat a Big Mac or play with Lego, you’re supporting theft.

In fact, many of the world’s best known and most financially successful products were actually copied from earlier competitors, who have mostly been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Whether due to cutthroat business practices, poor marketing or just plain bad timing, here are some of the original products that were left behind by their copycats

With annual sales of more than $10 billion, The Hershey Company is one of the world’s Big Four chocolate makers alongside Cadbury owner Mondelez, Mars and Nestle.

But its signature product, the one that catapulted it to the top of the chocs, was actually a rip-off of a competitor. In 1894, a full 13 years before the Hershey’s Kiss was created, rival chocolate maker H.O. Wilbur and Sons pioneered the design with its Wilbur Buds.

Samira Kawash, author of Candy: A Century Of Panic And Pleasure, said Hershey wasn’t the only copycat, and in 1909 Henry Wilbur even tried taking some of his imitators to court.

“Unwrapped, the Wilbur Bud was quite distinctive — the bottom of the candy was moulded into a flower shape and the letters W-I-L-B-U-R embossed in each petal,” she wrote on her blog Candy Professor.

“In contrast, the Hershey’s Kiss then as now isn’t much to look at. It is just a plain cone, its bottom flat and unadorned. While this perhaps was less lovely to behold, it did mean the Kiss could be manufactured by dropping the chocolate on a flat belt, rather than needing special moulds.

“The decisive moment for the Hershey’s Kiss was 1921, when new manufacturing equipment allowed the foil wrapping to be automated. Wilbur, and many other small American chocolate concerns, eventually fell behind Hershey in the race for market share.”

In 2009, California-based Armor Games released a free Flash-based browser game called Crush The Castle. The goal of the game was to kill the inhabitants of a castle using rocks or bombs flung from a trebuchet.

Just eight months later, Finnish game developer Rovio released Angry Birds for iOS, featuring the exact same gameplay — but in the place of rocks or bombs, players shot multi-coloured birds to knock down fortresses created by green pigs, to retrieve their stolen eggs.

“Although it copied the concept of Crush The Castle, Rovio improved everything about it: the user interface, the art, the music, the level designs,” Wired wrote in 2012. “But it was still based on someone else’s gameplay insight.”

Released just when iPhones and the App Store were booming, Angry Birds was an instant smash hit. Today the games have been downloaded billions of times, while Crush The Castle is largely forgotten.

Things aren’t all rosy for Rovio, though — after a much-hyped $1.3 billion float on the Helsinki Stock Exchange in September, shares in the company have more than halved as it struggles to convince players to pay for bonuses in its “freemium” games.

While Rovio faces accusations of being a “one-trick pony” unable to replicate the success of Angry Birds, owning one of the most successful game franchises of all time — complete with movie and TV spin-offs — is not a terrible problem to have.

When McDonald’s franchisee Jim Delligatti invented the iconic Big Mac in 1967, he was more than 30 years late to the party. Mr Delligatti was inspired by rival chain Big Boy’s Classic Double Deck Cheeseburger, created in 1937 by Bob Wian at his Glendale, California burger stand, then known as Bob’s Pantry.

“My ideas were working out all right, but a hamburger joint is just a hamburger joint until it wins a reputation,” Wian told The Milwaukee Journal in 1958.

“It takes an idea to give a place a reputation. I was always looking for just the right idea and then one night in February of 1937 some of the Glendale high school orchestra dropped in, as was their custom.

“‘The usual burger, I guess,’ one ordered. Then another asked, ‘How about something different, something special?’ I took this challenge and got to work. The guy raved and before long my special was pulling in trade.”

At the time the Big Mac was introduced, McDonald’s was lacking a signature burger. By 1968, it was on the menu in every restaurant, and soon accounted for nearly one fifth of all sales. Today, roughly one billion are sold every year.

Speaking to the Los Angeles Times in 1993, Mr Delligatti conceded he didn’t come up with the idea of a double-decker burger. “This wasn’t like discovering the light bulb,” he said. “The bulb was already there. All I did was screw it in the socket.”

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