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Making Your Brand Original

Like your competitor's ideas? Our branding expert explains the fine line between inspiration and imitation.
December 5, 2005

We all know it's tempting to copy the competition. There's safety in conformity--a certain "comfort factor" in being similar. After all, the other company knows what it's doing, right? Not always.

First, remember that branding is about differentiation--emphasizing your company's differences, not similarities. When you copy the competition, you're reminding customers of them, not you. However, there's a difference between exact imitation and creative inspiration. Use creativity to leverage an existing idea, but avoid replicating its every detail. So when is it okay to follow someone else's lead and when isn't it?

Of course, plagiarism is out, and it's illegal to copy anything that's patented or trademarked. Here are some other less obvious things you may be tempted to copy but shouldn't:

If you have to, imitate a competitor's marketing strategy or sales incentives only with extreme caution. Make sure you understand the underlying assumptions first. For example, if a competitor's sales materials feature an upscale design, maybe there's a good reason behind it, maybe not. Is there a market for premium-priced goods? Or does the CEO simply prefer an expensive look? Sometimes companies--even bigger ones--have no sound strategy behind what they do. They're just catering to personal tastes or imitating somebody else themselves.

Imitation isn't all bad, though. Here are instances in which it can be quite beneficial:

Your goal is to stand out without sticking out. You want your customers' experience to be comfortable and positive, but also unique. Seeking customer comfort and satisfaction in creative ways is a vital way to build brand equity.