Lifestyle dollar store Mumuso may have satisfying discounts for everyday goods, but it also has consumers across Asia scratching their heads. If Google auto complete queries alone are anything to go by, everyone is asking the same question: is it really a Korean retailer, or is it actually Chinese? Mumuso and its low-priced counterparts Ilahui and Yoyoso have become popular across Southeast Asia for selling cheap personal care goods, beauty products and homewares in brightly lit, minimalist stores. All three are, in fact, Chinese, but the confusion is understandable – these Chinese companies splash Korean lettering and imagery across their product packaging and retail spaces. The in-store experience is set to a K-pop soundtrack , lulling shoppers further into the illusion that they’re buying products made in Korea. South Korean authorities are cracking down, exasperated by what they see as copycat foreign brands trying to ride on the coattails of made-in-Korea success stories such as Innisfree. The Korea Intellectual Property Office (KIPO) and the Daejeon District Prosecutor’s Office announced on September 26 that a court had ordered Mumuso and Ilahui to close their offices in South Korea. This was the culmination of an investigation which had seen KIPO and the prosecutor’s office seek information from six Korean cosmetics brands and the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (Kotra), a network of trade offices that has intellectual property specialists in 15 locations in eight countries. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Korea is not the only country receiving the dubious compliment. Stores such as Miniso and Usupso follow Mumuso’s model of selling lifestyle and home goods at affordable prices, but their marketing speaks a different language, namely Japanese. Yet again, these are to all intents and purposes Chinese companies. Usupso’s headquarters are in Guangzhou, southern China, and both its founders are Chinese. One of Miniso’s co-founders, Ye Guofu, is Chinese. Co-founder Miyake Junya is Japanese, but internet users have cast doubt on his credentials as a designer, mainly due to a sparse online record of his past achievements. Although both Miniso and Usupso label themselves as “Japan-based designer brands”, critics say the connection to Japan is tenuous and a pretext allowing them to pass themselves off as Japanese companies. Consumers have spotted that the Japanese and Korean featured on Miniso’s and Mumuso’s respective packaging, websites and in-store branding is frequently meaningless or full of errors. The confusion comes as the dollar store retail model spreads in the West – and not just those of Asian origin. Japan’s admired dollar store (called “100 yen stores” in Japan), Daiso, recently opened a new location on America’s east coast, bringing its signature Japanese-inspired gifts and sushi shaping tools to New Jersey’s Edgewater residents Popular Dutch chain variety store HEMA announced plans this summer to expand from Europe to the US and Canada thanks to a partnership with Walmart . Quirky Danish discount retailer Flying Tiger added to its 900 stores in 30 countries with a new shop in Boston last year. All of this points to a broader global trend for a more design-focused update on the mom-and-pop dollar stores, one that doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon. There’s nothing particularly new about companies branding themselves in a way that could mislead consumers into believing the brand is from another country. British brand Superdry features Japanese characters prominently on its clothing and logo, which has undoubtedly caused some confusion about Superdry’s origins and left the brand open to charges of cultural appropriation. However, Superdry does not appear to be at risk of encountering any legal trouble from Japanese IP authorities. Dan Harris of law firm Harris Bricken is an expert on legal issues related to doing business in China. Harris says situations like this happen all the time in the US. “There are a ton of foreign companies here that try to hide that they are foreign and look American, and it’s not a big deal,” Harris said. “It’s like big breweries acting like they make craft beers.” South Korea’s laws for preventing unfair competition take a different view, however. Companies which cause confusion by misrepresenting the nature or source of a product, or the “rules of origin”, can fall foul of the law. The KIPO investigation discovered that both Mumuso and Ilahui were operating “paper companies” in South Korea – paying to borrow an office address, but not actually operating a physical office – and this brought them directly into the cross hairs of the unfair competition law and Korean trademark law. “By disguising their products as ‘Made in Korea’ products, their activities constitute an act of fraud by false advertisement,” says Dr June Park, a political economist based in Seoul. “The bulk of the products that the two companies tried to sell overseas reveal unidentifiable contents and ingredients in the products with incorrect usage of the Korean language on product packaging,” she says. The court order will make life difficult for Mumuso and Ilahui in South Korea. But those brands – and their “Japanese-inspired” counterparts such as Miniso and Usupso – have their sights set on other overseas markets, including India, the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam. In August, The Korea Times reported that South Korea’s National Assembly Budget Office had urged the Korea Customs Service (KCS) to intensify action against copycat brands, and Kotra has issued warnings to raise consumer awareness of possible “fake” Korean goods in a number of locations. Park says that in the aftermath of the court decision, South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy announced plans to launch a task force dedicated to fighting trademark violations. But Harris is sceptical. He believes Korean and Japanese IP officials will struggle to rein in the copycat brands beyond their own borders. “If it were champagne or tequila, or anything else with a Protected Designation of Origin determination, they might [be able to],” Harris says. “But this isn’t what we are dealing with here. This is an issue for those countries and their consumers.” By disguising their products as ‘Made in Korea’ products, their activities constitute an act of fraud by false advertisement Dr June Park, political economist Some action overseas is underway. Korea’s Joong Ang Daily recently reported that Thai police had confiscated around 1,300 Mumuso products on the basis that they violated disclosure regulations. In another case, a Vietnamese investigation established that over 99 per cent of Mumuso products sold in the country were made in China. Campaigning for consumer education and awareness might be the key to protecting the ‘Made in Korea’ image even if there are limitations to what authorities can do. In countries like the Philippines, consumers are mistrustful of Chinese products, and there’s evidence that those consumers will reject copycat brands – if they are able to spot them. Of course, for consumers outside South Korea, that’s not necessarily easy to do. Even media reports in some countries have unquestioningly labelled the likes of Mumuso “Korean brands”. Park believes that a PR effort from Kotra’s IP specialists could help to educate consumers in Southeast Asia and beyond, raising awareness and helping them to distinguish genuine Korean products. However, she concedes that dealing with copycats is a tricky business – on occasion, Korean consumers have let their guard down to buy kimchi made in China.