As we wrote this article the Chinese Spring Festival is around the corner and the pandemic is still on going around the world. We decided to offer our 2-cents on Chinese clone bricks scene in 2021.. The research here are mainly based on what’s going on in China market and may not applicable to western market. Nevertheless we hope our research could provide insight to clone bricks market as a whole. We are going to focus on seven areas below:
- The Brick Quality Scores on China Clone Brands
- The Rush to Acquire IP
- The MOC Design Stealing and MOCer Collaboration
- Guochao 国潮 aka China-Chic
- Crowdfunding as Marketing Tool
- Rise of Brands with Competence In-house Designers
- The Fate of Knockoffs
1. The Brick Quality Scores on China Clone Brands
Our friend CK had released clone brands ranking based on the parts quality. Hope this will serve a guide on which brands to chose if the parts quality is important to you. The bricks assessment is based on the sets reviewed during 2020 by CK. LEGO is used as the ultimate benchmark which all the Chinese clones being scored against. The ranking is based solely on part quality and other factors such as packaging, design and theme aren’t part of the consideration.
2. The Rush to Acquire IP
Many clone brands had collaborated with well known IP to achieve higher commercial values for their sets. This is a way to move up the value chain. LEGO had did this successfully over the years with third party IP like Star Wars and in-house Ninjago. Right now the clone brands lacked the mean to develop own IP. The quickest route is to bank on third party IP. Enlighten/QMAN used its Keeppley brand to sign up anime related IP like Doraemon, Pokemon, Evangelion, Onmyoji etc. SEMBO works with culture arms of Beijing Forbidden City Museum, People Liberation Army, China National Space Administration in making sets with theme related to patriotism and local culture. Xinyu/Happy Build obtained license from Toyota in order to make sets related to Initial D anime.
For 2021, the practice of acquiring third party IP will continue and we would see more theme that’s resonance with consumers in China.
3. The MOC Design Stealing and MOCer Collaboration
The Rebrickable site and LEGO IDEAS had became source of free design and inspiration for clone brands. For years, you could find copies of MOC instructions being sold on Taobao. After LEPIN operation was shut down, wholesale copy of LEGO design became risky move for many clone brands. The brands like Bela, Lele who used to produce counterfeit LEGO had launched sub brands that steal MOC design. Overnight, Rebrickable became the place that clone brands mined for building instruction and making sets without authorization from the designers. Brands like CADA, HappyBuild and Mould King are willing to pay for MOC design. However, Mould King also guilty of stealing MOC design and not compensating designers.
List of designers that collaborated with Mould King.
We hope western MOCers be more approachable and open in collaborating with alternative brands. One need to realize it is hard to count on LEGO to pick your design even after achieving 10,000 votes. Having clone brands that’s willing to pay and produced the sets would be dream come true for many.
4. Guochao 国潮 aka China-Chic
Over the past few years, China has seen a surge in young consumers’ interest in domestic brands and products that incorporate Chinese traditional style and culture, a trend known as guochao (国潮) or China-Chic. China’s young adults grew up during the rise of China as a global economic powerhouse. The 20-25 age group is becoming one of China’s largest spending groups. Under such influence, they shifted their attention from pop culture imported from Japan, Korea and the West and started to develop interest in traditional Chinese art and literature. Guochao is not only about the rise of domestic brands, but also the resurgence of traditional style and cultural elements. Clone brands that incorporate guochao are Sembo, Keeppley, Cayi, LOZ, Sluban, Gudi, Forange, Decool, just to name feel.
The Brickheadz from Caiyi on Traditional Chinese Opera characters
SEMBO’s Forbidden City series with Emperor and his officials.
Brickheadz by Gudi on Wuhuang, which is based on a cat and dog from a well known picture book.
Sluban’s Five Elemental buildings. So far Water, Fire, Metal and Wood had been released.
A set from Decool depicting a scene from Romance of Three Kingdoms in which Liu Bei paid a visit to Zhuge Liang.
Even LEGO had taken note of the China-Chic and released Chinese Festive sets for the last two years. LEGO’s Monkey Kid is a theme that’s taken liberty with Journey to the West characters which it hope will catch the hearts and wallets of Chinese consumers.
5. Crowdfunding as Marketing Tool
More and more alternative brands go to Modian (摩点), a chinese crowdfunding App to promote their sets and getting funding and commitment from customers. Xingbao was one of the early adopter by releasing its Yellow Crane Building set early to supporters in Modian. Through employing this method, the brand could built a base of hard core supporters. Fan chat group formed on Wechat and QQ to discuss and share the photos of the new release and the built sets. Viggi（未及) which is a sub brand under SEMBO launched the sets first through Modian before taking the products mainstream.
Sembo Viggi Kamakura Train set which loosely based on a opening scene in Slam Dunk anime.
The brand such as Pantasy sell exclusively via Modian. The brand is using Gobricks as the supplier.
To entice fans to put down deposit to commit to the “project” on Modian, the starter promise big discount for early birds and handed out exclusive gifts. Also more goodies unlocked when the funding reach certain stages. A good example is Keeppley, a sub brand of QMAN that released its Chinese Spring Festival set through Modian with goodies like brickheadz, acrylic display box and discount for early birds. Also the brand had lots of interaction with fans during the fund raising period and providing after sales support like correcting the manual and mail out missing parts.
Even book publisher DK had turned to Modian to market mandarin translated version of LEGO books.
Modian had collaborated with SEMBO in holding a MOC competition. You could check out the Top 10 result. The Top 10 entries will go through next round of competition in which the designers would get their own Modian page to solicit for support. The fans would vote for the project with deposit for the yet to release MOC design. The design that hit the funding target would have the set produce by SEMBO and get a share of the profits. The successful MOCer would be given an opportunity to become a contracted designer with SEMBO. This is win-win for the brand and designer. With the funding support through the fans, the brand had more confidence in using the design and manufacture it while the designer get a cut of the profit.
Perhaps LEGO could incorporate crowdfunding elements in IDEAS platform. Beside casting 10,000 votes, fans had to support the set by putting a deposit. Show LEGO the money and hopefully they will make it!
6. Rise of Brands with Competence In-house Designers
The alternative brands realized that copying from LEGO is not long term strategy. There is need to develop in house designers for sets with own IP and designs. Brands that had strong designers are Sembo, Qman/Keeppley, Sluban, Gudi, Cada, Rael and Woma. Decool/Jisi relied on both internal and external designers. For example Ian Ying from Malaysia had worked on sets such as Courage of Three Kingdoms for Decool. We notice these designers had getting better in their designs over the years. The day will come where China clone brands designers would rival the LEGO designers.
7. The Fate of Knockoffs
The LEPIN Saga came to closure on Dec 24 2020 when the gang lost the appeal and confirmed to rot in jail. LEPIN boss Li was sentenced to imprisonment of 6 years and with a fine of 90 million Yuan (US$ 14 million). It is an expensive lesson for the KO brands out there. The message is clear, do not infringe on trademark and copyright or you will be dealt with. The case was significant to make it on national broadcaster CCTV. Our friend took a shot of the news about the LEPIN gang of 9 when they were paraded and humiliated in front of the reporters.
This doesn’t mean the copycat had call it a day and quit. LEPIN had reincarnated as King, Queen, Jack and Lion King even as the court case was on going. There are new players such as Leji, Panda and Zebra. Often the box leave out the brand and contact details of the maker leaving it hard to determine who made them. They operated discreetly and rely on online channel to sell in China and overseas. There is huge demand for knockoff sets in South East Asia and the sets could be found openly in physical stores.
We reckon the knockoff will continue to exist but not in a big way. Gone were the days of old LEPIN which every LEGO sets had counterfeit equivalent. The KO brands only go for the flagship sets such that priced out of reach for average Chinese consumers. The KO brands also limited the runs hoping that LEGO won’t bother much. LEPIN boss Li was sentenced to imprisonment of 6 years and with a fine of 90 million Yuan (US$ 14 million). It is an expensive lesson for all the KO brands out there.
Looking Ahead in 2021
Hope you enjoy our 2-cents on China clone bricks market in 2021. Today is Chinese New Year eve. Wishing all the readers of CMI a Happy Spring Festival and Prosperous Year of Ox!