Copycat Marketing Drives Uniformity within Industries

Recent observations of companies all copying the leader in their field suggest that bland marketing will haunt some sectors for decades.

What’s the first rule of marketing? It’s hard to say. But differentiation clearly goes to the heart of the matter. If brands and products are all alike, then they’re commodities. Customers then buy strictly based on price, personal relationship, or other considerations. When that happens, you can drop your marketing budget to zero and let your team go (just make sure someone’s left to stock the shelves or maintain your e-commerce presence to keep product moving). Margins suffer. Followers become vulnerable.

So, why do some companies try so hard to mimic exactly what their competitors do?

Copy & paste strategy spotted

When I developed an editorial style guide for a particular company–a clear leader in its industry–I thought that it would help the firm’s employees to produce more consistent and grammatically correct content for their audience. That worked. Within a few months, however, one of the firm’s competitors began using many of the conventions that were being applied to external communications: rather unusual, brand-specific ones that would not otherwise find their way into written materials. What’s more, several competitors began to ape the key messages the firm had honed in recent years. The materials from various outfits became similar as to be indistinguishable. The firm’s sales force even mistook competitors’ media pieces for their own.

Not by the book: herd mentality over differentiation

As any student of business will tell you, standing out from the herd is key to competing successfully. If you can’t be the leader, find a niche and excel. While there will always be a cost-cutter trying to undermine the market on price, that’s a losing strategy (at least in theory).

Following the leader may save a company money in terms of R&D and marketing innovative new products to the world, but ultimately leaves those firms vulnerable, having considerably weaker margins. There are plenty examples of dominant leaders. Think Apple, Amazon, Google. Who’s second to those firms? Don’t worry if names don’t come to mind. An industry-leading firm arguably commands a higher market share and margin today than in previous decades.

Copycat survival: long zombie march

If the copycats are vulnerable, how long can they survive? I would contend that these follow-the-leader types can hang on for decades. The greatest risk lies in periods of market consolidation. (The activities of companies such as 3G Capital, known for swallowing big fish and implementing strict cost-cutting, suggest that even publicly-listed leaders are at risk.) If they can navigate that difficulty, the future looks pretty bright. In high-trajectory industries with habitual double-digit growth (yes, they exist), there’s enough money to be made that simply aping the number one can be a profitable business. From what I’ve seen, this entails offering the same product/service claims at a somewhat lower cost. From a marketing perspective, I can only lament the lack of excitement and creativity when companies eagerly play “me too” to exhaustion. Creativity, please!

Please add your comments. Have you seen any egregious copycat marketing?