When does a “copycat” strategy pay?

Nintendo 3DS
Nintendo 3DS (Photo credit: John.Karakatsanis)

A copycat strategy for developing products and services can be more lucrative than the original invention which sucks huge to amounts of time, energy and money.

But what exactly is an imitation or copycat strategy?

Business owners copy or imitate other companies’ products and services all the time. Some duplicate others’ products without protest from their competitors.

Not possible? Yes it is. Take the example of a simple product such as a peppercorn grinder. A smaller food company may make an exact copy of the brand leader’s product. The copycat company may even buy its plastic container from the same packaging suppliers as the brand leader.

The copycat pepper grinder company isn’t the only one in the act. The supermarkets will climb into the fray and produce generic pepper grinders – and sell them lower than the branded lines, sometimes as a loss leader.

Sound familiar? Sure, a pepper grinder is a simple example but take a look around – this copying is happening all over the place. And in big markets such as pharmaceuticals where profits are really pumped to the hilt. The branded pharma giants are squeezing blue murder because of the generics that are flooding their market. About time.

From shameless copying, let’s move to imitation or copying with innovation. Is this really possible?

It is but here’s the paradox: imitation requires creativity, imagination and intelligence to be effective, to produce brilliance.

Apple wasn’t the first in MP3 players – the honour goes to Saehan MPMan. But look at what Apple came up with; the iPod had vastly superior storage and its business model – selling the device at a high price and the songs for a fraction of the cost in other formats – jolted the entire world music industry and changed it forever.

This iconic brand isn’t the only successful imitator – there have been many: food companies, card issuers, supermarkets, automobiles, computers. When Atari released its Pong video game in 1975, Nintendo was one of 75 imitators. Facebook wasn’t the first social networking site; there was Friendster. Nor was Google – others that got their first word Magellan, Infoseek and Snap.

These businesses were not just good copycats – they were creative innovators in their own right. They came up with a cheaper or better product and service and grew the market far bigger than even the original pioneers had envisaged.

If you don’t want to spend years trying to develop a totally new concept but feel you have an idea that is at least 15% better (an old investor rule of thumb) than what’s on the market, then take a look here for expert guidance.

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