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TOMS Shoes and BOBS Shoes

TOMS Shoes and BOBS Shoes

One of my readers recently saw some shoes in a mall store that looked awfully familiar to TOMS shoes. Upon further inspection, these were BOBS shoes, made by Skechers. Who are TOM and BOB, and what’s the story with their similar lines of casual footwear?

Many readers will be familiar with TOMS Shoes. TOMS is know for producing espadrilles – a casual Spanish/Argentine style of shoe with a rope or rubber sole and canvas or cotton on top – and for giving a new pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair they sell. TOMS has won a pile of awards since their founding in 2006, and TOMS founder and “Chief Shoe Giver” Blake Mycoskie spoke at the 2009 TED conference.

Skechers, founded in 1990, is a manufacturer and retailer of casual shoes, sneakers, sandals, and boots. They are known for their celebrity-based advertising campaigns.

In 2010, Skechers copied essentially the entire concept behind TOMS and launched BOBS Shoes by SKECHERS. They are producing similar shoes, with the brand name BOBS (a plural version of a common three letter male name, expressed in all caps). They also promise to give away one pair of new shoes for every pair that is purchased.

BOBS versus TOMS

Commemorators immediately noticed the similarity, and began to take Skechers to task. TOMS commented on their blog, reiterating that there is no connection between TOMS and BOBS, and asking why Skechers chose to use an imitation of the TOMS design for their charitable efforts. “Don’t they have a ton of shoe designs?”

A year and a half later, BOBS shoes lives on. The marketing copy on their website reads as follows:

Inspired by the South American alpargata shoe and the idea of gifting a pair with a purchase, we created the BOBS collection to help children worldwide. It isn’t a new idea, but it’s a great idea–and we are happy to be part of a charity movement that has the potential to impact so many.

Globally minded down to its earth-friendly packaging, BOBS is designed with comfort, style and care in mind. For every pair of BOBS that you buy, SKECHERS will give a new pair of shoes to a child in need.

At least they acknowledge that “[i]t isn’t a new idea.”

Is There a Trademark Issue Here?

I don’t think so. TOMS and BOBS shoes are not actually identical, and neither claims to have invented this style of shoe. TOMS essentially took an existing style and used it as a means to create a charity-based business. So TOMS would find it difficult to try to protect the look and feel of their shoes as a unique brand indicator (which is basically what a trademark is). As far as the actual marks themselves, I think it’s safe to say that TOMS and BOBS are not confusingly similar. English-speaking people are not likely to confuse the two names. Finally, Skechers was careful to make sure that the design of the BOBS tag was not too similar to that used by TOMS.

It looks like Skechers was able to copy the concept behind TOMS shoes while staying just far enough away from any protectable elements to avoid a claim of trademark infringement. But while they may not be violating TOMS legal rights, I doubt that being seen as having ripped off a highly regarded, charitable brand will be helpful in the long run. It just comes off as distasteful.

Moral: Not every product that is similar to an existing brand – even uncomfortably similar – rises to the level of a trademark violation.

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