an open letter from a white-labelled designer
As the world’s most reluctant blogger (it seems I manage to ink out a whopping 2-3 articles per year), it can take a lot to motivate me to write something new. Yet something happened this past week that doesn’t happen very often: I got angry. I don’t mean that I got a tad frustrated, or kind of irritated; I got stinking, fuming, hopping angry. And the reason behind it all? I got white-labelled.
(Image credit: Hello Evra)
“What is this white-labelling, and why on earth would it make you so angry?” I hear you ask. Well, here’s the deal: White-labelling is when a company rebrands the products or services of another company (usually the original designer or manufacturer) and makes it look as though they have created it.
Wonder why a Saisho DVD player from Dixons and a Matsui DVD player from Currys look the same? That’s because they are the same; both Saisho and Matsui are white-label brands, and they’re selling identical products. Basically, when you buy a white-label product you don’t really know where you are buying from; you only know the company that bought the right to put its logo on the packaging.
Now, I’m not here to knock the entire principle of white-labelling. It can help companies expand without having to invest in brand creation or specialist services, and it’s a pretty wide-spread and generally accepted practice in retail. I have no desire to get on my design high horse and tell other people that they should be opposed to white-labelling when it’s clearly helped many businesses grow.
HOWEVER. I will object (and I did), and I will get on my high horse (I did) when it happens to me (it did).
I started selling my collection through an international company sometime around 2016, and at the time it seemed like a great step forward for my brand. Locally produced and a one-woman show, I have a limited reach and can only raise awareness of my products so much. This platform had a broad range of items, and it seemed easy to envision my products amongst them. Plus, they had a Berlin office and talked about how keen they were to partner with more independent Berlin-based designers, and how could I have a problem with that?!
Being an independent designer often means also being the face of your brand (Image credit: Hello Evra)
I’d heard rumours through the design world about white-labelling, and from the moment I first met with this company, I made it clear that I would never consent to being white-labelled. It went against everything I stood for as an independent designer, and would never be acceptable to me. Thankfully everyone was understanding, and I was assured it would never be a problem; my collection was added to a list of partners that weren’t to be white-labelled, and I could rest easy.
Then last week I found out I had been white-labelled. I don’t know when it happened, but one day I realised my products had all been renamed. My name had been removed entirely from my collection, and on closer inspection, I found a notice telling me to ship all orders without my logo or marketing materials.
Adding my name isn’t just about a label: it’s about my identity as a designer (Image credit: Hello Evra)
I sent off an email to my contact at the company requesting to be removed from the white label list immediately. I was stunned, but assumed it had been an error, especially since I had never been notified about any chance to my white-label status. All that was important to me was that the white-label was removed as quickly as possible, to avoid any damage to my brand. After all, the entire purpose of my brand is having unique designs, and having them available under another brand name suggests that either I have stolen someone else’s designs, or they’ve stolen mine. No matter how you slice it, it’s just not a good thing.
It took another email and a few more days to hear a response from my contact, and that’s when I got angry. Being white-labelled wasn’t a mistake, the decision had been that my brand name didn’t add enough value to their site. Being white-labelled was a positive thing, I was told, it would add a more exclusive value to my products, and while I may like the idea of building up my own independent reputation, this was a step in the right direction for my brand.
The rest happened very quickly. I wrote a considered, yet strongly-worded response outlining my position on white-labelling and requesting to be removed as a partner immediately. I never heard back from the company, but it turns out they did read it, since the next day my products were removed and my website login was deleted. My white-label experience ended, and I’ve added it to my list of retail experiences that I know to look out for in future.
I had put a lot of thought into my final response to them, and after I sent it I realised that I felt like I was writing to a larger audience than this one company, so I’ve included it below. As I said at the beginning of this post, white-labelling can (and does) work for many companies, and I don’t attempt to take away from any of that. I’m not trying to denounce the entire industry of white-labelling; this is just one letter from one designer letting you know what happens when you remove her name from her creations.
I’m very disappointed to hear that I don’t have the option to retain my own branding on the XX platform. Naturally I understand that XX has a right to present its content in the way that makes the most sense to them, but in taking this step they are failing to understand (and are undermining) the principles that make up the core values of small design businesses.
Owners of independent design brands like myself make their living and build their reputation on individuality, quality and trust, and we work with third-party platforms like XX not only to broaden our reach, but also to raise awareness of local design among our communities. Our products are not mass-produced or simply manufactured goods; they are carefully designed, and branding is an integral part of this. Having the same designs available online through a different brand name is highly damaging to my business; it throws into question the very individuality and creativity that my label is built upon.
For XX to theorise that the right direction for me would be to remove my right to brand my own designs (and my own intellectual property) is patronising and offensive. Furthermore, to claim that removing my brand name will add an “exclusive” element is simply outrageous. Replicating my designs under another brand name does not add a layer of exclusivity to my brand’s value; it dilutes it.
Since beginning with XX I have always made it clear that I do not consent in any circumstance to be white-labelled, so not only am I disappointed that this has happened, but that I had to find out so late. The “late notice” you apologise for was in fact no notice at all, and I can’t help but wonder whether you would have notified me, had I not brought it to your attention first. I’m surprised that in the process of removing my brand name from the “do not white label” list, no one thought it relevant to notify me as a supplier (no matter how small a supplier I may be) that the way in which my products were being represented were undergoing such a drastic change.
As I stated at the beginning, I fully expect XX to operate in a way that makes the most business sense to them, and I also understand that white-labelling is not exclusive to XX, and that other white-labelled brands may be happy with the process. However I am not one of these brands, and therefore think it best to have my products to be removed from XX immediately, and to terminate my role as a supplier.
I am a very small supplier and I’m sure XX won’t the suffer loss of my products, and I appreciate your help in closing out my account with XX as soon as possible.