Will Minimalism Kill Trade-Dress: The Catch-22 in Product Design

Will Minimalism Kill Trade-Dress: The Catch-22 in Product Design

This piece has been authored by Sharanya Chowdhury, 3rd Year B.A L.L.B, Dr. Ram Maohar Lohiya National Law University

Minimalist packaging is characterised by its simplicity, functionality, and reduced use of materials. It aims to eliminate unnecessary layers and components, opting for clean and straightforward designs that prioritise the product’s essence. The movement towards minimalism represents a departure from conventional marketing tactics that employ extravagant and elaborate packaging to catch consumers’ attention. Instead, companies have realised that sustainability is a crucial factor influencing consumer decision-making. Additionally, minimalist packaging provides numerous benefits beyond environmental concerns. It often reduces the overall cost of production and transportation, allowing companies to allocate resources more efficiently. This cost-effectiveness enables businesses to remain competitive in a market where conscious consumerism is rising.

However, in pursuing sustainability and cost-effectiveness, an alarming number of companies are embracing minimalist packaging, inadvertently sacrificing their product’s distinctiveness. As more brands adopt clean and straightforward designs, the market becomes saturated with similar-looking products, making it challenging for consumers to differentiate. An overwhelming sea of simplicity now overshadows iconic packaging that once stood out on the shelves. A great example is Rooh Afza, which has been in the same packaging for many years. Preserving a touch of distinctiveness in packaging ensures a lasting impression and customer loyalty in an increasingly homogenised marketplace.

Why is Minimalism Relevant? Case Study: TheOrdinary, BeMinimalist and MostUnderrated

TheOrdinary is a popular skincare brand known for its minimalist approach to skincare formulations and affordable prices. The brand was founded in 2016 under the DECIEM umbrella, a Toronto-based company focusing on functional beauty products. TheOrdinary was born out of Brandon Truaxe’s vision to create a skincare line that was simple, transparent, and effective. The brand quickly gained popularity, primarily through social media platforms, where beauty enthusiasts and influencers praised its straightforward approach and affordable prices. It gained a loyal customer base due to its science-backed formulations, clear product descriptions, and focus on single-ingredient treatments. Today, TheOrdinary remains a prominent player in the skincare market.

The skincare company BeMinimalist, on the other hand, which has acquired substantial success in India, was created in 2020 on the conviction that the beauty business deserves a “Transparency Renaissance”. Similarly, MostUnderrated, a brand started in 2023 worked on similar lines. Their philosophy is extremely similar (read: a paraphrased version) to the other two companies. In India, due to the presence of BeMinimalist and brands alike, TheOrdinary remains confined to the customer base that knew about it from the beginning and can afford skincare at the prices they offer. Although one may call them the pioneers of this movement, their brand is slow at gaining traction in India compared to North America.

From the current case, it is evident that the packaging of the product does not help the case of distinctiveness, the only thing that one may judge is the formulation which is out of the purview of this article. However, the label of all 3 products mentions the active ingredient which is 2% Salicylic Acid making these products concerningly similar as a reasonable man cannot be expected to reach each and every ingredient of the product. The entire idea of trade dress was to stand out in a crowd and prevent deceptive marketing. When minimalism becomes the hype, there are only so many elements that an artist can work on to make the product distinctive. The lack of distinction paves a pat.. It must be noted that while in many cases minimal packaging is encouraged, it is relevant in the contexts where products concerning “human health” are being marketed. Minimalist packaging of life-saving medicines such as inhalers and epi-pens, ensures that users do not get confused while making use of such products. However, in the current example, and many other contexts such guidelines are not as stringent in their application, especially in the Indian market where healthcare products are very easily available.

The Legalese Behind Design

It is essential to understand why the current discussion is different from a usual discussion on passing off; in Britannia Industries Ltd. Versus ITC Ltd. & Ors. a single judge bench of the Delhi High Court, presided over by Justice C Hari Shankar, rejected a suit filed by Britannia Industries Ltd against ITC Ltd for claimed trademark infringement and passing off of Britannia’s NutriChoice Digestive Biscuits by ITC’s Sunfeast Farmlite Digestive Biscuits. The Court held that Sections 29(1) and 29(2) of the Trademark Act must be interpreted with the understanding that “points of dissimilarity between rival marks cannot be regarded as irrelevant” or ignored and that ITC Sunfeast’s FarmLite Digestive Biscuits were not deceptively similar enough for a person of average intelligence and imperfect recollection to confuse them with Britannia’s NutriChoice Digestive Biscuits. Additionally, there have been cases where the courts have stated that the conscious copying of packaging to a degree does not constitute infringement. However, for a case like this to hold ground, there must be distinctive features in the first place.

According to Kerly’s Law of Trade Marks and Trade Names, if the items are expensive or crucial to the purchase, and the consumer is typically an educated person, the characteristics above must be taken into account. When the purchasers are well-educated and wealthy, this is a test to be used. In Cadila Health Care Ltd. v. Cadila Pharmaceuticals Ltd., the Court stated that one of the facts to be considered in a passing off action is the class of purchasers who are likely to purchase the goods, their education, intelligence, and the degree of care they are likely to exercise in purchasing and/or using the goods. This could be a defense for skincare products that are primarily one-ingredient in nature and thus need a better understanding of cosmetics as opposed to brands like Dove, Santoor and Lakme which are easily accessible to a wider audience.

In the case of Intercontinental Great Brands v. Parle Products Private Limited, a significant element of the court’s judgment hinged on the resemblance of Fabio’s trade dress to the blue packaging of Oreo biscuits. This case highlights an important point concerning trade dress disputes, particularly in instances where the product in question already has a substantial market presence. However, the relevance of such discourse may vary when it comes to minimalist products that do not rely on intricate packaging or branding. The court’s application of the test involving an average customer with reasonable intelligence but an imperfect recollection is essential in trademark and trade dress disputes.

Nevertheless, this test primarily assumes that consumers make educated and informed choices. In situations where the products being sold do not require a highly educated or discerning audience, the dynamics of trade dress protection may differ. For instance, the brand MUJI, established in 1980, is known for its minimalist and utilitarian approach. MUJI’s products often lack conspicuous branding and distinct product names, adhering to a “No Labels” concept. They are labeled in a straightforward and descriptive manner, such as “glue,” “pencil,” or “umbrella.” In such cases, the protection of trade dress might require a more nuanced consideration, as the distinctive characteristics of the product may not be tied to packaging or branding but rather to their inherent simplicity and functionality.

This example underscores the need for a flexible approach in trade dress protection, considering the specific characteristics of the products and the expectations of their consumers. The application of trade dress law should adapt to accommodate minimalist and functional designs where the packaging or branding may not be the defining aspect of the product’s identity.

While it was an elegant idea that appeals to the Generation-Z audience that appreciates a good stationary haul, such ideas cannot be trademarked. This leaves marketing strategy, or in brand-speak the “brand-philosophy” vulnerable to plagiarism. The lack of discourse over copycat marketing has brought us to a point where multiple companies could be selling the same pen and the buyers wouldn’t care as long as it meets their aesthetic expectations. The sellers, on the other hand, cannot complain against it since it won’t qualify as “passing off”, considering the lack of distinctiveness in their product and the fact that the current trends require the market to be on the minimalistic bandwagon for a little longer.


The current trend towards minimalist packaging has major negative implications for design intellectual property rights (IPR) and is detrimental to competition between brands. It breeds a ground where instead of product quality, logistics become the primary concern and the brands that are able to produce cheaper products and faster delivery will gain precedence as long as they maintain the aesthetic expectations that weren’t difficult to meet in the first place. Companies like MUJI exemplify the challenge of trademarking minimalist concepts, as their “No Labels” approach limits the distinctiveness of their products. As consumers focus on aesthetic expectations rather than brand names, the need for more discourse over copycat marketing becomes more apparent.

Overall, the minimalist packaging trend necessitates carefully considering its impact on design IPR. While embracing sustainability and aesthetics is commendable, businesses must balance minimalism and product distinctiveness to protect their intellectual property and create a lasting brand identity in the evolving market. Legal frameworks and brand strategies must adapt to the changing landscape to ensure fair competition and consumer protection in the minimalist era.

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