A bun stuffed with mayonnaise and heaped with pork floss may not sound like much of a delicacy, and much less a dish that became an internet sensation. But one such bun has sparked an online frenzy and a flurry of lawsuits between two bakery chains, who both lay claim to the Master Bao brand, or Bao Shifu in Chinese.
The issue was brought to public attention after the alleged copycat store in Wuhan, operated by Beijing Yishang Catering Management, was criticised by Changjiang Daily in March for paying people to form long queues outside its eatery.
The store later issued a public apology via its Sina Weibo account “Master Bao Headquarters”.
But according to news website ThePaper.cn, the errant restaurant had nothing to do with the Master Bao chain owned by Beijing Bao Cai Sheng Restaurant Management, which claims to be the rightful trademark holder for Master Bao.
The latter business was started in 2004 by a man called Bao Caisheng on Beijing’s Ding Fu Zhuang North Street, next to the Communications University of China.
His original bakery – which still sells its pastries by the jin, or roughly half a kilo – later went viral on social media after its signature mayonnaise-filled buns topped with pork floss were featured on a food show by a Beijing television channel. Celebrity fans and ticket touts were soon gathering outside and the queues were long enough for people to wait seven hours to be served, ThePaper.cn calculated.
Despite its new fame, the bakery kept the buns at the affordable price of Rmb18.5 ($2.84) per jin and introduced more flavours such as seaweed and beef floss.
Bao Caisheng told ThePaper.cn that he had never hired people to queue outside his stores. “If anyone can prove that I’m looking for people to queue in Shanghai, I’ll gift him an entire store. If he can prove that I’m looking for people to queue in Wuhan, I will give him all the stores in the country,” he told reporters.
Bao’s chain, which has the Sina Weibo account name “Master Bao Pastry” has 33 directly owned stores (27 in operation and six at planning stage) in prominent locations in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities.
It said last month that it expects to open a further 40 stores nationwide this year after receiving Rmb100 million in new funding from Tiantu Capital (an investment that values the company at Rmb1 billion). The website of rival Beijing Yishang, on the other hand, claims it has over 100 Master Bao franchised stores across the country.
According to records on Chinatrademark.com, Beijing Bao Cai Sheng was the first to register the Master Bao trademark under the “breads and cakes” category in 2013, for which baker Bao received official approval in 2014.
In September 2015, a person named Bao Haibing applied to register the Master Bao Bakery trademark (alongside a logo featuring the portrait of a man) under the category of “restaurants, beverages, and daycare centres”. This trademark was transferred to Beijing Yishang in December 2017.
All trademarks held by Beijing Yishang have since been placed under investigation for revocation or invalidation, the media is reporting. There have been 138 applications for the Master Bao trademark to date.
In another twist, a Xinhua investigation found that Beijing Yishang had not only registered Master Bao’s trademark in different categories since 2017, it had also registered the “Golden Arch” in both English and Chinese after McDonald’s announced a change to its registered business name in China: Golden Arches (China) Co.
Beijing Yishang also applied to trademark the names of bubble tea chains popularised through social media, reports found.
In March, Bao Caisheng lodged a legal complaint against Beijing Yishang in Beijing, Hangzhou and Nanjing. Four days later, the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Industry and Commerce announced that it had conducted on-site inspections of 33 pastry shops using the Master Bao logo on its packaging and storefronts, and found that many of them could not provide valid trademark registration certificates, Legal Evening News reported.
Bao Yishang seems unfazed by the law suit. According to Sixth Tone a company representative said it would resolve the matter through legal means. Sixth Tone also noted that when it was put on hold a message was played on the line that stated defiantly: “Our company is the one and only authentic and legitimate Master Bao.”
Bao Caisheng is dismissive of his imitator’s tactics and its product, lashing out to Sixth Tone: “They don’t even bake the products themselves, they’re just a company that develops chain stores. I demanded that they stop using my name.”
Food industry analyst Zhu Danpeng told Legal Evening News that trademark disputes such as the Master Bao situation will become more frequent, because niche retailers and restaurants are gaining overnight celebrity through social media and recommendations by KOLs (key opinion leaders).
“In the past, there was no networking, and there was no unified standard for the recognition of trademarks across regions. In addition, companies did not have a comprehensive understanding of intellectual property, giving some speculators plenty of opportunity,” Zhu claimed.
Awareness of trademarks and intellectual property protection is becoming more prominent.
“To crackdown on shanzhai [the term for a copycat or fake; see WiC1] brands, the state needs to provide stronger legal support in terms of laws and regulations and industry associations have need to strengthen industry norms,” Zhu said. “Enterprises should build a professional intellectual property talent team, and educate consumers on how to distinguish between true and false representations of their brands.”
Businesses must continue to be vigilant after successfully registering their trademarks. “Constant monitoring of the application for the registration of similar trademarks should be conducted to minimise the subsequent cost of rights protection,” Zhu added.
For multinationals which have suffered trademark violations by Chinese entities in the past, at least the Master Bao case shows that they aren’t being singled out. Local firms that have built successful brands are equally at risk. But what makes this case more unusual is that the ‘impostor’ is now much bigger than the original. Perhaps only in China would such an audacious strategy be possible…
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