How to Maintain Your First-to-Market Position in a Copycat World

We can't avoid the copycats or the subpar lookalikes, but we can be prepared for when they start chasing our success.

learn more about Sarah Kauss

By Sarah Kauss

Monica Dipres

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Let's face it: surreal moments in business can happen at the most unexpected times. But what I've discovered through the years is that they can often be the catalyst to eye-opening realizations.

Two years after launching my beverage bottle company S'well, I was traveling overseas on vacation when I happened upon an international retail conference. Being fairly new to the retail game, I decided to take a look around and very quickly came face-to-face with the "founder" of S'well, offering to sell me S'well bottles. The man clearly was not me, but he definitely had a bottle with my logo on it.

This unexpected and jaw-dropping experience offered a first glimpse into the copycat world of retail manufacturing. I instantly became aware of the challenges that first-to-market brands face in a globally manufactured and digitally-driven world of innovative products and designs. And, even though I'm proud to have developed a product worth imitating, I was frustrated by how easily a patented creation (and brand) could be at risk of being tarnished by fake, subpar merchandise.

Related: 5 Ways Entrepreneurs Can Gain a Competitive Advantage

As a result, I've worked hard to stay ahead of the imitation game. Here are just a few tips other first-to-market companies can consider when looking to protect your brand:

Quality above everything

Don't lose sight of where you've set the bar on quality. It may be more expensive to produce but quality materials, design and service will always help set your product apart.

For S'well, we were the first in our fashionable shape of stainless steel beverage bottles. Continuing to choose this quality material over cheaper aluminum options helps keep the flavor and desired temperature of beverages, while differentiating our bottles from others in the marketplace.

Think about your style but also your quality standards and understand how you can be even more future forward with your quality demands.

Customers know best

Loyal users can be your ticket to product innovation by providing objective and often uninhibited feedback on what will make your product better.

We're constantly developing new ideas and evolving existing products in-house at S'well -- from size and color and overall style. But we also have our ear to the ground and listen intently to our customers' needs by looking for ways to accommodate their lifestyles and keep our brand fresh for them.

Ask yourself how you can more effectively use loyal customer insights to drive innovation for your company to stay ahead of the imitators and keep your customers coming back for more.

Related: 3 Reasons to Be Grateful for Tough Competitors

Partner on brand

Start by defining your key values and determine which brands have a similar approach yet provide scale.

Through the years, we have developed partnerships with well-established companies that align with our fashion-forward approach. It has helped expand our visibility and our business into new markets.

If efficiency is a key offering for you, then be the first to partner with a similar brand of bigger stature. Working with well-known companies provides third-party endorsements and can set the stage for faster growth than the competition.

Stand for more

Staying true to your brand is critical to staying ahead of the imitators. But making your brand stand for more than the utility it provides will, more often than not, help you deliver on something the competition can't match.

S'well was developed with a built-in corporate social responsibility component, which has helped us give back through charity partners. It's authentic to who we are and what we've been since day one.

Consider how your brand can provide more to its users or what you can do to make your company mission come to life in new, unique ways.

At the end of the day, we can't avoid the copycats or the subpar lookalikes. But we can be prepared for when they start chasing our success (or literally trying to be us). Finding ways to evolve your product and brand through quality controls, partnerships and customer insights in an authentic manner will help you survive -- here or anywhere -- in a copycat world.

Related: Your Value Soars When You Separate From the Herd

Sarah Kauss

Founder and CEO of S’well

Sarah Kauss is the founder and CEO of S’well, a reusable bottle company.


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