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Imitation is the highest form of flattery

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Copying can be a compliment but not when you’re in competition. But it happens because trends naturally evolve. So, is looking to your competitors acceptable or even advisable?

Since the earliest days of retail stores and selling services, businesses have been taking on each other’s ideas. This is undoubtedly because they’ve seen how customers have reacted to their rivals’ marketing approaches, with open wallets.

I can picture the Victorian gentlemen’s outfitter admiring new ornate golden swirls on the signage on his competitor’s window, then getting out his paintbrush to do the same. Or imagine being the first business to have put up a sign that wasn’t on the side of your building, but down the street instead? The first ever billboard must have really turned heads, but now look.

Forever, businesses have studied their competitors’ marketing, branding and advertising and borrowed ideas.

We look at successful businesses and try to identify what they’re doing to be ahead of the game. We look for inspiration and to see what the next trends will be.

Marketing and advertising are more susceptible to the follies of fashion than pretty much any other business activity. We don’t need to be experts in human behaviour to know that people are attracted to the latest shiny new thing, the latest humour or styling.

But equally, many businesses face the dilemma of not wanting to put off customers who feel safer in their comfort zone. We’re scared they won’t love our brands so much if we choose to tell our story differently.

That comfortable space is not surprising. Many consumers like the familiar. We often don’t want to be challenged and can be suspicious of the maverick.

For example, for many decades we expected a reserved formality in how banks and lawyers presented their services to us. Imagine how radical it must have been to be the first legal firm not to use a staunchly traditional copperplate-style font, or a colour other than dark blue or green? A prospective client would ask “Can I trust this firm with something so important when they look so different to the others?”

In agency-land, a competitor audit has long been a starting point with any new client brief, whether it’s coming up with a new look or a marketing campaign. But, if you’re planning these things correctly, it should never be to copy, but to understand.

A bit of research can give you a clearer picture of what has appealed to customers before, which is valuable, but it can also tell you want to avoid so as not be copying.

Even if those law firms of old were known for having similar styles, for example, nowadays it’s better to steer clear of too much obvious similarity, especially if there’s only a few players in your marketplace.

If an established local business like the one you’re launching is known for having red vans, have blue ones. Not only is it just the right thing to do, it’s your differentiator too.

It’s a busy, over-crowded world in the design and marketing stratosphere and it’s hard to believe that there could be anything new in it. Most of what we see now is a slightly differently nuanced version of what’s gone before. When you’re struggling to come up with a creative idea that will make your business stand out, it can be incredibly disheartening.

Businesses we admire for their branding, their creative approach or their marketing messages may attract us with only subtle differences from the rest of their competitors. But even if it is those slight nuances that make positive connections with our customers, for so many consumers now these connections are made as much by what businesses say as by how they say it.

Increasingly, consumers make decisions around purpose and values, with authenticity being as much as a driver for falling in love with a brand as presentation and style.

Understanding your competitors and keeping an eye on how they are telling their stories is still important, to keep your finger on the pulse of the environment in which you operate. Looking at your own business to understand the heart of your own story is even more valuable.

You can’t share your own story authentically if you’re not nurturing it, if you’re too distracted by looking around you and reactively following trends.

The less you truly understand your own brand story, the harder it is to reflect it in a way that your customers will connect with. If you don’t, your own competitors probably won’t be giving you a
second thought.

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About Author

Vicki Jones

Vicki Jones is director of Dugmore Jones, Hamilton-based marketing management consultancy. Email vicki@dugmorejones.co.nz