Why following the leader can make you a lemming

“If they’re doing it, they’re doing it for a reason”

Recently, we’ve been reviewing a brand’s digital ecosystem to see how well it delivers against consumer expectations. Unfortunately, it requires a complete overhaul, as it meets few user needs and, as a result, it isn’t much use to the business either.

This was no great surprise to our client. They explained that the system they had inherited had been largely shaped by a competitor audit rather than first hand research. Their predecessor’s argument being that, “if they’re doing it, they’re doing it for a reason.”

The experience reminded us that by blindly following their rivals, companies can end up like lemmings – not so much sliding into irrelevance but actively racing towards it.

Imitation’s false economy

Copying the competition can seem like an efficient way of operating. A company can freeload on a rival’s investment (allowing the competitor to incur the cost of research, establishing a market and best practice) and reap the rewards through imitating their outputs.

But for this strategy to pay off, the ‘follower’ must be confident that the ‘leader’ has identified a real opportunity in the market; that they have adequate consumer understanding; that those insights are within their use-by date; and that their plan is well executed.

The risks of being a ‘me-too’ company

That’s a lot of assumptions to make from the outside looking in. But even if you believe that becoming a ‘me-too’ company might be an efficient strategy, it’s rarely an effective one. Here are 3 reasons why being a copycat is a risky business.

1. Brand & marketing risks

At a brand and marketing level, copying the competition reduces stand out and ‘share of mind’.

If a brand looks more and more like its rivals, it will struggle to get noticed. If it’s not noticed, it won’t build mental presence. Without mental presence, it’s not likely to be considered, chosen or bought by consumers.

“Marketers need to quickly establish a brand within consumer’s minds – and being distinctive helps make a brand salient. Since most brands have a long tail of irregular buyers, distinctivity helps bring the brand to mind, encouraging repurchase. When a brand drifts into the deep recesses of the mind, the opportunity to be considered when the consumer buys into that category is diminished.” – Byron Sharp, How Brands Grow

2. Product risks

At a product level, because the web has expanded brand availability and consumer choice, the biggest gains now go to those who can spot and seize them first. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of fast fashion, where lead times inversely correlate with business performance.

FOLLOW 1

Gap’s lead times are 8 times as long as Zara’s – and their annual sales just over half the size (read more over at Loose Threads)

In a category like this, competitor products are an unreliable proxy for what consumers want now. Tastes change quickly, so by the time a company has jumped on a rival’s bandwagon, the real opportunity has been and gone.

The market share that a ‘fast follower’ can steal is small and short-lived. So instead of blindly copying, the best companies know they need to use consumer data to identify and quickly capture in-market demand before their competitors.

3. Service & experience risks

At a service and experience level, being ‘as good as’ isn’t enough to attract users.

With a parity service, the cost of switching (the time and effort required) outweighs any benefit, which means consumers will choose to remain with their existing provider.

In a connected world, where lots of different services are interrelated through tech platforms, these network switching costs can be high. In a world like this, if a service provider wants to steal market share, then they must offer significant benefits to compensate consumers for the high cost of switching.

(Side note: This perceived hassle of switching between networks might explain why people are more likely to change their partner than change their bank – and why social graph portability might make the social network market more competitive.)

At best, a me-too service will only live up to consumer expectations, but never exceed them. So if your company is aiming for us parity with its rivals, then it’s probably not aiming high enough.

Beware the cost of copying

Copying the competition may appear cheap, but it can turn out to be expensive: wasted marketing; products for which there’s no demand; services with no compelling reasons to switch and that fail to attract users.

To avoid these pitfalls, the best companies follow these principles (rather than each other):

Exceed expectations

Great companies don’t stand still. They continually spot and respond to the gap between what consumers expect and what they have to offer – whether that’s in their marketing, their products or their services.

Keep your data fresh and your research first hand

Great companies stay close to their consumers. But they also know know that – as consumer expectations keep rising – all insight has a sell-by date.

Never assume anyone knows anything

Copying rivals is dangerous as they may well be labouring under their own mistaken assumptions about what consumers expect – or even copying someone else.

Contact Us

For more information on how we can help you avoid sliding into irrelevance, contact Matt Boffey here.