Imitate and Succeed or Innovate or Die?

monkey see, monkey do

Product imitations – monkey see, monkey do.

According to the Interwebs, Charles Caleb Colton is credited with the famous quote “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” I will not try and create my own version of this quote because it works just fine. But, in technology often times creating a close copy cat version of a product does occur and work. Some view it as outright imitation of the competition – a fake. But, one recent Inc. magazine article states that the biggest successes are imitators.

The article goes on about how, early in his career, Bill Gates stole the show from Gary Kildall. To summarize the article, Kildall created the first computer operating system (OS) and was in touch with IBM about it. But, Kildall was apparently consumed with innovation over timeliness. So, Gates instead swooped into IBM to offer them a “second-rate” product that took off.

Imitation Butter
If you’ve had imitation butter it can seem difficult to decipher in a blind taste test if it’s the real thing. If you’re going to imitate a product, this is one way to go about it. Of course, you’d have to go about it in a way that avoids lawsuits – such as those that Apple and Samsung are fighting about. From a PR perspective, it’s also often not enough to just have a me-too product that may cost less. Lower cost is often the biggest virtue of an imitator. However, costing less is not the only virtue you really want to rest upon if you’ve imitated another product. But, often times this is the case.

In this situation it can become easier for the competition to reposition you as inferior in quality. Despite this, it may be enough to have the low-end market piece of the pie. Practically every industry is filled with lower cost imitation products of one form or another – from medicines to cables. This is because the market demands it and so companies step in to provide it.

Real Butter
What if you’re the real butter maker – the one that makes the authentic real thing? The one that was first to market? Often first to market is everything. From a PR perspective the first to market advantage is key. It’s everything if you don’t screw it up with a product that can quickly be made inferior by the competition. If you’re making the real thing it’s important that you be the one to out-innovate your own product. Perhaps this also means creating a lower-cost version of your own product. After all, if lower cost is a weakness the competition can build a company on, it may be wise that you do this part yourself. From a PR perspective, a lower cost version from the originator is easier to press to the market than from an outsider.

Companies should remember – from a PR / marketing perspective – that just about any product can lay a claim to first to market. If you were first to market with smartphones that customers paid $300+ for, that’s great. But, you’ve left the door open for another to be first to market with a smartphone that is sub-$300. Either is a “smart” smartphone niche. And, either presents unique PR opportunities to create market share. The same is true with just about any other product and price point.

So, it’s no surprise that imitators often find success. It can even be argued they are not imitators but, rather, further innovators of an already-good product. Some do make this argument. So, if you’re an imitator try and find something other than lower-cost to hang your hat on. PR will be better if so. If you’re the original innovator be wary of the fact imitators can create lower-cost versions – do you want to let that market go to them or be in on it with your own lower-cost version?

Being the proven innovator will almost always land you success. That’s not as true for imitators. This level of risk is often the positive difference for innovation. The other risk in being the innovator is also being out-innovated and becoming out-dated. So, sometimes imitation can be the easier road. Whatever way you go presents unique PR opportunities and challenges.