For the better part of 2018, one hot-button issue that keeps coming back up is whether we, as FPV pilots, should buy cheaper, cloned FPV products rather than pricier genuine products. All the industry titans like Trappy, Bardwell, Chad Kapper, and our own Tim Nilson have chimed in on the matter during one video/interview or another, and yet the issue still persists. If anything, the issue has grown even hotter now that GetFPV adds tariff surcharges to customers’ order to help cover the cost of nauseating new tariffs. After all, tariffs are the current US administration’s weapon of choice to combat China’s theft of intellectual property.
So yeah, the subject is more sensitive than Mr. Steel’s rates (seriously, 1200°/sec is insane), and I’m totally out on a limb writing this article. But that’s what we do as pilots. We push limits and test new ideas. I won’t get political or comment on tariff surcharges, but as a business and marketing consultant, I can certainly bring a fresh perspective to the issue and help you find an answer to the question of whether you should buy cloned FPV products. So grab a beer and some popcorn, cuz I’m about to send it.
Recitals and Definitions
Before we dig into this, it’s important we’re all speaking the same language. Much of the heat surrounding the issue of whether or not pilots should buy “cloned” products is simply due to differences in the definition of the word, and confusion surrounding related terms like “re-branded” and “me-too” products. So let’s clear that up and get it out of the way.
Cloned FPV Products: I refer to cloned FPV products strictly as products that look virtually identical to the original product and are marketed as such with the intention of deceiving consumers. In short, I refer to cloned FPV products counterfeits in the truest sense. An example of this is Bangood’s PUDA Rooster (the clone) and the Armataan Rooster (the original.) Bangood deceptively lists the product as a “Frame Kit For Armattan Rooster RC Drone.” The PUDA’s product description even rips off Armattan’s description verbatim. The only way the PUDA isn’t a clone is if it’s actually a white-labeled product.
White-Labeled Products: These products are manufactured by one company, but sold under another company’s brand. You see this most often with motor manufacturers that produce branded motors for local and online retailers. The products generally look identical, with the exception of logomarks. Although not technically correct, white-labeled products are sometimes referred to as re-branded products. Re-branded products, however, generally refer to original products that a manufacturing company has re-branded to serve a different market segment of its own customer base, so don’t get them confused.
Me-Too Products: These are products that might copy one or more features of the original, but are not marketed as the original product. As a whole, me-too products are generally originals in their own right and are the natural consequence of free-market competition. One could argue that virtually every canopy-style racing frame fits in the me-too category, but I think the best example is the TBS Crossfire and FrSky R9M. Me-too products are a sign of healthy competition and in the absence of frivolous patent lawsuits (I’m looking at you and your “rectangles with round corners,” Apple), my general stance is the more the merrier.
Consume on Principle…
Cool. So now that we’re all on the same page, I can make a bold and controversial statement. We as pilots, regardless of nationality or geographic location, should avoid buying cloned FPV products as a matter of principal. For one, cloned and counterfeit products are an illegal global scourge that costs authentic, innovative businesses billions (with a capital B) of dollars every year. The IP Commission Report estimates “that the annual cost to the U.S. economy continues to exceed $225 billion in counterfeit goods, pirated software, and theft of trade secrets and could be as high as $600 billion.” That’s a ton of money being stolen, and I for one have no desire to be complicit in that theft. More importantly, though, buying cloned FPV products facilitates a slow death of our beloved hobby.
It’s kind of like death from a thousand cuts. Every sale of a cloned FPV product takes money away from the innovative company that created the original – money the company needs in order to continuously innovate and provides great customer experiences. Cut a company’s R&D budget enough times and innovation will stop completely, forcing the company to compete solely on price. And when enough companies are forced to join the rat race to the bottom of the barrel, we the FPV community lose. Sure everything might be affordable, but without innovation and great customer experiences, I guarantee all that will be left of the sport by then is a graveyard of youtube videos from “back when drone racing freestyle was fun and cool.”
We also owe it to ourselves to be good stewards of our hobby and sport. Whether you race competitively or pump out wicked freestyle videos, the one thing we all have in common is a solid crew that supports us. That’s part of what makes FPV so great! There is no shortage of great people in the FPV community willing to help out another pilot. Some of those people go above and beyond to help out the community by taking a calculated risk and starting a business. These people are pushing the envelope with new frames and 3D prints, and keeping us supplied locally when convenience and time matter most. They’re designing new flight controllers and writing thousands of lines of code, and they’re doing because they’re passionate about our sport and sincerely want to improve upon it. So when some cheap knockoff of their innovation hits the market and starts threatening their personal livelihood, we as a community have an obligation to shut that shit down by not giving counterfeit products any credence. So yeah. Don’t buy cloned FPV products.
…except when you can’t
Look. I get it. Community and camaraderie are great, but sometimes budgets are tight. Really tight. Bills need to be paid and adulting is hard when your inner child is itching to rip some packs at your favorite spot. Sometimes that $100 frame isn’t an option, and getting back in the air is critical to maintaining your sanity and keeping the ball that is life rolling. In those cases, I say do what you need to do, bro. We’ve all been there before. Nobody should judge a pilot for sticking to a budget and being financially responsible. The industry, and we as an FPV community can take a few cuts for the team from time to time.
But with that in mind, I would also encourage anyone considering the purchase of a cloned FPV product to reach out to any FPV community first and see if someone has a used original in good condition for sale. It might take some time and soliciting more than a few groups, but if you’re lucky, you might even get it for free! Numerous times I’ve seen people give away entire quads in great condition to a complete stranger, not out of a sense of charity, but rather out of a sense of camaraderie. As I said, the FPV community has no shortage of good people. It’s important we all do our part to keep that culture vibrant and healthy as best we can.
I’d also like to take a moment to acknowledge there are times when it’s virtually impossible to spot a cloned FPV product. Not only are cloned FPV products deceptive by definition, sometimes a pilot’s first experience with a product is with the clone, not the original. In the mind of the pilot, the clone is the authentic product since it was the first/original brand experience. In this case, the obligation to be good stewards of our hobby falls on the authentic brand, not the pilot. And that brings me to my next point.
Attention All Authentic Brands
I’m going to switch gears here for a moment and talk to the authentic brands in our industry. Companies large and small have complained about competing with China’s cheap prices, so there are a few things I think they need to hear.
Huh hemm. Guys. I hear you. I see you. I know all too well a patent isn’t going to stop China from copying your product overnight. I know defending a patent either isn’t an option financially or is such a lengthy and hellish game of patent infringement whack-a-mole, it’s simply not worth your time and energy. More importantly, I know that when you see a clone or a me-too product hit the market, your first instinct is to drop your price to “stay competitive.” So I’m here to remind you that you don’t have to do that. Don’t get sucked into the rat race to the bottom of the barrel. There are no winners down there.
Price isn’t king. Convenience is. Plus, at the end of the day, people don’t buy products. They buy solutions, experiences, and relationships. That means you can stay out of the rat race by ensuring the solutions you sell are accessible, foster phenomenal customer experiences and build great relationships. For the most part, authentic brands in the industry are doing pretty well in that regard. Sending stickers and battery straps with each order, employing great customer service and same-day shipping…retailers are off to a great start. But there’s so much more manufacturers and retailers large and small could be doing.
Having great customer service and high-quality products might be good enough today, but if sales are slipping, it’s a sign a company needs to be more than a customer-focused company. To be a market leader in this industry, a business needs to be customer-centric. The difference between the two might seem subtle, but they are really two completely different mindsets.
Customer-focused businesses have great CS teams and processes in place to facilitate transactions and turn poor experiences into good experiences, but customer-centric businesses see great customer service as a given – a prerequisite to doing business. Rather than chasing sales and transactions, customer-centric businesses cultivate relationships. Not just strong relationships, but deep multi-level relationships that proactively drive insight, innovation and customer support. In short, it’s the difference between serving customers well and being so in sync with them, a company can proactively respond to customers’ needs across every touch-point.
I say this not to be preachy or to sling a bunch of buzzwords around and sound smart. I say this because I went out on a limb and decried cloned FPV products as a matter of principal and sense of stewardship for our sport. But the reality is that we, as humans, are a fickle bunch, and buying a cheap clone is a completely rational choice in and of itself. I honestly can’t blame anyone for doing it. It is only when the irrationality of human emotion is put into the mix – the sense of justice, pride, camaraderie, community, and love – that the purchase of cloned FPV products becomes an “irrational” behavior. Therein lies the quid pro quo.
Let’s Make A Deal on Cloned FPV Products
If we as a community of FPV pilots are to denounce cloned FPV products as a matter of principal and sense of stewardship for our community, then the businesses that wish to serve that community need to show us more love. Getting out of the rat race to the bottom means companies need to stop chasing transactions and start building relationships with pilots. If a business exec believes there’s no ROI in sponsoring a race, I promise them they’re wrong. Just because it’s hard to track doesn’t mean the ROI isn’t there. Support and sponsor events, not with intention of seeing a direct bump in sales, but rather with the intention of building real relationships. Instead of printing a logo on gates and pilots’ shirts, send a rep to get to know us and support us. Rather than leaving a “contact us” form on the company’s website, make the entire organization convenient and accessible with live chat and social media. Don’t email us surveys asking for feedback and reviews, host an event (online or offline) and collect insights casually over a few packs and/or pints. And if you notice a customer has launched a product or service of their own, give them a boost on social media to show them some love.
Conversely, pilots, if a company is working hard to support you and the community at large, reciprocate to show them their efforts are worth it. If you win a prize on race day, show the sponsor a little love by thanking them publicly and sharing a photo on social media. If you think a company made a mistake on your order or a component was faulty, given them the benefit of the doubt and an opportunity to make it right before hosing them on social media. Lastly, remember that customer-centric companies can’t support you if they can’t hear you. So if you need help with something you care about, whether it’s creating buzz for a drone education program you’re starting or just a little help troubleshooting your build, don’t be afraid to ask. Make an effort to have a real (non-transactional) relationship with your favorite brands. Companies and brands aren’t faceless entities. They are made up of real people, so find out who they are and get to know them.
If we as pilots, retailers, manufacturers, and a community can stick to that quid pro quo, then the question of whether to buy cloned FPV products becomes moot. It’s kind of like a random stranger asking you if your mini quad can fly without the camera. The answer will always be “why would anyone want to do that?” Once pilots and companies have both experienced what it’s like to be customer-centric, there’s no desire from either party to experience anything less.