by Samantha Leggat

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

Jun 27, 2017
MarketingTechnology Industry

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – but it isn’t effective PR and marketing.

marketing automation gears
Credit: Stockbyte/Thinkstock

I’m not a big fan of copying, and I try to use limited portions for reference in my writing. I’d say it’s that I prefer writing in short form rather than long over-pontificating.

My opinion on imitation in terms of PR, marketing and advertising also differs from many others. There are those who subscribe to the “why recreate the wheel” mentality, which is to say they don’t mind jumping on bandwagons and hitching their cart to trends. I understand that certainly, but I don’t recommend following competitors so closely that you get lost in the crowd. It’s difficult to differentiate yourself in message when your marketing, graphics and advertising so closely mimic those of your competition.

This is an increasingly visual world and prospects expect to see differences so that they can narrow down their choices of vendors. If your style is so similar to the competition, visitors start becoming confused between you and others. Additionally, if you choose to also mimic phrases and sections of capabilities (“that’s so catchy, let’s use it – because, well, we can do that too!”), you’ve lost your identity entirely. Copying another company’s story is sure to confuse people and dilute your message, and with so few opportunities to tell a story and talk about who you are as a company, it’s important to claim your own identity.

Remember “Got Milk?” I don’t know how many t-shirts I have seen over the years at trade shows with a version of that, replacing the word milk. Got data? Got storage? Got Hadoop? How mind-boggling boring, and the eye rolls when people saw the tongue-in-cheek message were practically audible. Those poor vendors undoubtedly went home with a few leftover t-shirts. People certainly took them, but I bet there are elementary school students all over the world wearing outsized versions for PE, their friends asking “why does your shirt say data instead of milk?” Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly some nods to nostalgia that work. This wasn’t one of them, in my opinion. It was lazy marketing.

Here’s why it doesn’t do a company any favors to copy its competition:

  • It makes it difficult to focus on your own company and product capabilities and strengths.
  • It stifles creativity and frankly, it’s lazy.
  • It puts you in the same box as the company/product you’re copying (and anyone else copying them) so prospects make assumptions about you. (Also, you better hope some major industry shakeup doesn’t happen or you’re shaken right along with them, for better or for worse.) 
  • It’s always better to define your product than let someone else, which is what you’re doing as a me-too.
  • You’re automatically second (or third, fourth, etc.), chasing the one you’re copying – why not overtake them and make them copy you?
  • You’ll never differentiate if you’re copying. Sure, you can say you have features 1, 2, 3 and 4 but also 5, 6 and 7, but you’ve copied everything else so nobody’s listening anymore. Assumptions have been made – game over.

If you have been brilliant enough to develop a product and your engineering and product team has worked day and night to deliver it, doesn’t it deserve a unique look-at-me marketing and PR campaign? Doesn’t it deserve more than a few hours trolling the internet for copycat ideas? Than reusing exactly the same website templates as everybody else in your market? The same cut-and-paste content? The same graphics, styles and color palettes? I didn’t think so.

I’m all about recycling but there’s a time and a place. Be bold, tell your story and stand out. It’s absolutely clear what Oscar Wilde meant (so many forget the second half of the quote) when he wrote “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.”

If any imitation is going to happen, let the mediocre imitate you.