There’s a recent news item that I can’t get out of my head. It comes from Kunming, a city of about five million people in China’s Yunnan province. It’s a relatively obscure place about 300 miles north of the place where China, Vietnam, and Laos meet.

Kunming was in the news recently not because of something big, but because of something small. A 27- year-old American expatriate, blogging under the name of BirdAbroad, wrote about a new Apple Store she’d stumbled across in her neighborhood there. It was, in all respects, typical of its breed…from the iPads and iPods in the display cases to the typeface of the sign in the window to the staff’s “chunky nametags” to the color of the walls to the signature spiral staircase leading to the second-story show floor.

Yet it was all a fake. Apple has stores in Beijing and Shanghai; there is none in Kunming. And yet the fake was so convincing that the salespeople themselves believed that they worked for Apple.

Within a week, according to other reports, Chinese authorities had swooped in and located five ersatz Apple stores in the city. Regulators shuttered two of them, but three others—including BirdAbroad’s neighborhood shop—remained open. It had the proper retail permits and was selling genuine (albeit graymarket) Apple products.

This small tale from the global economy encapsulates so many large trends: the gathering power of the Chinese economy, where even an obscure city has five million inhabitants and an increasingly acquisitive middle class; the resourcefulness and attention to detail of rogue marketers; and China’s increasingly serious efforts to combat its widespread IP piracy.

Most of all, though, the tale underscores the reach and power of brand image and the importance of protecting not only product patents but marketing trademarks as well.

Tens of thousands of people have read BirdAbroad’s blog, and many more have picked up the story secondhand. There is something appealingly crazy about the Case of the Ersatz Apple Store. What’s not clear to me, yet, is whether it is an amusing anecdote of the last gasp of China’s shadowy pirate economy, or a renewed warning for IP-based enterprises worldwide—including the pharmaceutical industry.

PS. Something I do know, though, is that our Trailblazer Awards banquet and ceremony will be a blast. Won’t you join us at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York City on September 9?

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