Copying your competition is a popular brand strategy — but it can backfire


Many of Burger King’s new health-conscious menu items are nearly identical to the ones already offered under the golden arches. (Paul Sakuma)
April 19, 2012

A big marketing story to hit the streets recently was news of Burger King’s new McDonalds-like menu.  This illustrates a long-time and over-used branding strategy that rarely works — copying your more successful competitors.

Of course, trying to replicate someone else’s formula for success can be very tempting.  The problem is that copying an advertising style, product array, service claim or delivery mode is not copying a formula for success — it’s asserting someone else’s brand strategy into your own mix.  Most often, the result is that you will confuse the marketplace about who you are and what you stand for and dilute the power of your own brand. Eventually, you’ll erode everybody’s market share.

This degree of consequence may sound harsh — but it’s true. 

Let’s use talk radio stations as an example.  Each has its own brand personality and role that it plays in your life.  For me, when I’m not listening to NPR, I toggle between two rock stations — one high energy and contemporary, the other a little more laid back.  Together, they fill my driving music needs.

I recently drove to Richmond (two hours away) on a Saturday afternoon.  Equipped with a radio programmed to my favorite stations, I headed on down the road.  After about 20 minutes on the first station I went looking for a change of pace.  But when I got to the second station, there was no change of pace to be found.  The second station had changed formats and was now playing the same songs I had been enjoying on station one.

First response — confusion: I was immediately confused.  I had come to rely on station two for a more laid back pace.  Who were they now?  How will they fit into my life?

I listened a while longer.  More of the same.  I realized that I could switch back and fourth between the two every time a commercial came on.  Copycatting was providing me with continuous music that neither station could do alone.  Cool! For me, not for them.

Second response — brand dilution:  Still confused about the second station, it began to lose its identity and I used it as an extension of the first.

After spending about an hour and a half toggling between the stations, I had had enough. Each station rotated through the same limited list of songs and the lack of variety turned pleasure seeking into annoyance.

So what did I do?  I switched to CDs.

Third response — decreased market share: Both stations ended up losers. In the end, radio ended up the loser as the lack of variety and choice wore thin and I went looking for greener pastures.

The moral of the story: Choose your own brand purpose and values, and stick by them.  Commit to making your company the best it can be by staking out your own claim in the marketplace. 

Become the leader in serving your purpose — not a follower in serving someone else’s.

Susan Waldman is co-founder and vice president of strategic services for ZilYen, a marketing firm based in Washington, D.C.

RELATED: The three keys to building a new brand

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