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Lookalikes cash in on Russian mineral water ban

MOSCOW (Reuters) - The distinctive, salty-tasting mineral water bottled in Georgia’s Borjomi valley has been a fixture on Russians’ dinner tables for decades.

In this file photo newly designed bottles of mineral water Borjomi are displayed during a presentation at the Georgian Glass and Mineral Water Company in Borjomi, some 150 km (93 miles) southwest of Tbilisi December 15, 2006. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili

So when Russia’s government banned the drink last year -- in what was widely seen as a political move to punish Georgia’s pro-Western government -- it was only a matter of time before rivals tried to muscle in on its market.

The company that makes Borjomi is waging war against what it calls “clones”: mineral water brands that taste like Borjomi and with packaging that looks uncannily similar to the original but which are in fact bottled in Russia.

Borjomi says these “clones”, exploiting its absence from the market, are deliberately trying to trick Borjomi aficionados into thinking they are buying the real thing. It has filed a court case against one of them for copyright theft.

“We take an extremely negative view of this,” said Marianna Glotova, vice-president for marketing and sales with GG&MW/IDS Group, which makes Borjomi. “They just imitate Borjomi by any means: similar names, similar labels.”

“You can deceive the consumer, but only once. He might get mixed up and buy something expecting to get the Borjomi taste but he is going to be very disappointed.”

The alleged imitators use the same distinctive red and white label as the original Borjomi.

Like Borjomi, the labels bear a picture of an historic building against a backdrop of snow-covered mountains. They also feature variations on the word “Borjomi”.

DENIAL

“The fact that the Borjomi people think there is a certain similarity, that is their personal business, let them think that,” said Alexei Bugremenko, general-director of mineral water producer Solyaris Akva.

Since last year his company has been selling what it calls “Borjomi-type mineral water” in Borjomi-style bottles. The water itself comes from southern Russia.

Bugremenko said though he was planning to re-design the bottles to look less like Borjomi, “so that in the future questions like this should not arise”.

Borjomi has filed a suit in the Moscow Arbitration Court against another company, called “Russky Borhzom”, which sells Russian mineral water with the word “Borzhom” -- the Tsarist-era rendering of Borjomi -- in big letters on the label.

The firm did not respond to a request from Reuters for a comment, but in the past has denied copying Borjomi.

The Russian government’s consumer protection chief banned the import and sale of Borjomi in May last year, citing concerns about safety standards.

Borjomi insists its product its safe and says it is determined to protect its brand in the hope the import ban will one day be lifted.

The ban is seen by many as political because it came at the peak of a furious row between ex-Soviet Georgia and Russia that was rooted in Tbilisi’s drive to pull out of Moscow’s orbit.

Borjomi is not to everyone’s taste, but it has been a Russian cultural institution since the country was ruled by the Tsars.

Before the ban, Russians bought 75 million litres each year and, calculated by the value of its sales, it was the country’s biggest mineral water brand, according to the company.

Many people swear by it as a hangover cure and doctors even prescribe it to patients, believing it has medicinal properties.

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