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Don’t Innovate, Imitate!

We’re re-reading one of our latest favourite business books in order to prepare a speed summary for clients, Obed Shenkar’s; Copycats: How Smart Companies Use Imitation to Gain a Strategic Edge.

We’re fans of the book, as you’d guess from an agency that believes the secret to successful innovation is to apply the elegantly simple formula that drives diversity and evolution in the natural world to brand innovation; imitation with a twist.

So of course, we’re in complete agreement with the book when it cites Theodore Levitt, the eminent American economist and professor at Harvard Business School;

“Imitation is not only more abundant than innovation, but actually a much more prevalent road to business growth and profits.”

But, as Obed Shenkar points out; simply copying the market leader in your category is unlikely to work because a) you are different, and b) your consumer is likely to be different. Instead, you need to innovate by adding an adaptive and differentiating twist.

For an imitation strategy to work, you can’t just blindly copy – you need to imitate smartly – by adding a twist that gives you a competitive advantage by building on your strengths and targeting an unsatisfied market niche.

The wondrous Farnam Street blog (a goldmine of innovation insights) underlines this point about the need for contextual understanding, by pulling out a key quote from Copycats:

[I]mitation without understanding the context of the product or service does not work, because it does not take into account necessary adjustments to the key environmental peculiarities that vary between the model and the imitator.

So imitate, yes – but adapt your imitation to your market with market understanding.


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