For Challenger Brands, Imitation Is Anything But A Long-Term Strategy

 

You’ve heard “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” While that may be true, it’s also a lousy long-term strategy for taking on market leaders if your ultimate goal is to beat them. Playing the imitation game is certainly understandable. There are hundreds of “me too” companies who have done very well “knocking off” the market leader well enough. In the grocery world, there are thousands of “generic,” or “store brand” products that have also been extremely successful and made their parent companies millions of dollars. So what’s the problem?

The problem is, familiarity breeds contempt both on the corporate battlefield and ultimately with consumers. What begins, earnestly or not, as imitation, improvement, or even an homage, becomes a wanna be, an imposter, or an outright rip job. And for a challenger brand, there’s nothing worse.

There’s a reason brands that lead their respective markets sit in the top spot. In some cases, more than one reason.  And for most brands, that top spot affords them all kinds of benefits including respect, leverage, the benefit of the doubt and default status among consumers. “There are half a dozen bags of corn chips here (all crisp, fresh and tasty), but I’ll get Frito’s because I know and like the brand.” OK, so if I’m one of the corn chip challengers, how can I compete? Truthfully, there are a dozen things you could do. But trying to be exactly like the 800-pound gorilla isn’t one of them. At least not if you want to stick around for a while.

Last week, a video featuring six country music songs made the rounds that illustrates this principle beautifully. The video, compiled by Nashville songwriter Greg Todd, used Pro Tolls to mash up six “different” country music songs from some of the biggest artists in Music City.

The six featured songs include: “Sure Be Cool If You Did” by Blake Shelton, “Close Your Eyes” by Parmalee, “This Is How We Roll” by Florida Georgia Line, “Ready Set Roll” byChase Rice, “Chillin’ It” by Cole Swindell and “Drunk On You” by Luke Bryan. The mashup lasts for nearly four minutes and by the end, there is little question, these six songs are all virtually the same. Same tempo. Same general instrumentation. Same syncopation. Even the lyrics are all generally the same. Which begs two very interesting questions – how did we get six versions of the same song and why don’t people care?

In a business as litigious as the music business, it’s hard to believe the artists haven’t put up a stink. Especially since the songs all came out at different times. Luke Bryan’s “Drunk on You” hit Number One on the country charts in 2012. Blake Shelton followed taking “Sure Be Cool” to Number One in 2013. (Not surprising really since we know the public already liked the song.) In 2014, both Cole Swindell and Florida Georgia Line hit Number One with their versions and by the end of the year, Chase Rice and Parmalee were at Number 5 and Number 20 respectively, and climbing. Six versions. Four Number Ones. Two on the way.

LOOMIS Imagibrand Process

In this particular case, fans clearly don’t care. Maybe they just REALLY like the song. Then again, until Greg Todd made his video, it’s entirely possible they just hadn’t put it together.

The point is this, whether you’re a country artist, or a bag of corn chips, trying to challenge the big dogs by simply copying what they do is NOT a strategy for long-term success. The key to enduring success is doing something fresh, new, different, better. Doing something that only you can do. Something exciting. Something unexpected. Something that makes people notice you.

Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton aren’t going anywhere. But will Chase Rice and Parmalee be on anybody’s RADAR five years from now? It all depends on what they do next. Will it be memorable and original? It better be.

When you’re a challenger brand, the worst thing you can be is forgettable.