How imitating your competition hurts your brand

Imitation brand

How imitating your competition hurts your brand

Back when I was 9-to-5ing it, I worked for a jewelry company. The owner’s marketing strategy was: Hand out the latest Tiffany catalog, forward the latest Tiffany email, and pin up the latest Tiffany promotional postcard. This is Tiffany’s packaging. This is how Tiffany organizes their website. This is how Tiffany’s photography looks.

The thing was: He wasn’t competing with Tiffany, and he failed to see how limited he had become by trying to imitate their very distinctive (and very well-protected) brand image.

I always wondered: Why would anyone want to build a knock-off brand?

It’s critical to directly understand why your target customers have been loyal to your competitor—or shifted their loyalty from your business to that competitor. Rather than saying, “We could do that,” instead say, “What makes us authentic? And how can we translate that into a story customers are attracted to?”

You have brand envy

Let’s say you’ve built a restaurant that serves some of the best pizza in town, at least according to your Seamless reviews. You’ve been a mainstay in the neighborhood for five years. Delivery and takeout are fairly steady, but dine-in sales have steadily diminished, and you’re lacking the exposure you need to scale. Some months you’re struggling to pay the staff.

A few blocks away, a new place opens. You hear from neighbors that it’s hopping. You walk by to check it out and, sure enough, it’s a full house.

“I mean, sure, we’re not new anymore,” you say to your team. “Look at our logo, our menus, our website. Now look at theirs. We need to redesign to really compete with them.”

On the surface, that’s true—sort of.

But dig below the surface

Business owners can be fooled into thinking a brand reboot is simply about visuals. But visuals are only the surface change that needs to happen. It’s far more complex than that.

Every few years, successful companies will refine their visual identity to align it more closely with their brand goals: value proposition, core purpose, vision, brand attributes. They will not do it for these reasons:

  • In response to competitors having done it
  • Because a new player on the field is experiencing the shiny-objects effect
  • Because “it’s been a while”

Why did Google reinvent their brand identity? They had endless brand recognition. Was it really necessary?

Credit: “Evolving the Google Identity: A new brand identity makes Google more accessible and useful to our users.”

They did it because they felt out of sync with their brand story:

Google is not a conventional company. Our mission—to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful—continues to evolve…. With those considerations in mind, we are excited to share a new brand identity that aims to make Google more accessible and useful to our users—wherever they may encounter it.

Design was only one part of the effort. The realization of the new identity required the collective work and diligence of hundreds of Googlers, in different roles, spanning the entire organization.

In 2016, Domino’s attributed a massive spike in sales to knowing who they were as a brand—and knowing that the brand was important to their customers. Their head of digital marketing claimed that Domino’s success comes “down to it having a ‘much clearer identity’ than its rivals.”

If all you can say about your brand story is, “We sell great ____ and we’ve been doing it longer than some other people,” you’re in for serious struggle.

If you don’t think your brand is important to your customers, then you have a LOT of work to do—to change your attitude and understanding of the importance of brand to today’s consumer in ALL industries, as well as to get cracking on defining who you are as a brand.

And that includes asking your customers what they think.

Brand Strategy

Making decisions that simultaneously take into account each of these areas shows your customers (and staff) that your brand stands for something—that it commands the market as a leader rather than a cheap rip-off.

What ever happened to loyalty?

Another common mistake made by businesses is to lower their prices to compete. In one fell swoop, they’ve diminished the overall value of their products, services, and story.

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As many marketing experts will tell you, once a company is forced to compete on price alone, they’ve lost the battle.

If a customer suddenly likes the neighbor’s restaurant more, then what about your brand is going to make them switch? Your customers are now trained (mostly by marketing people like us) to make purchase decisions based on the overall impression they get from your brand. Price might work short-term—but only short-term.

In fact, it’s generally the case that as your brand becomes more authentic, it becomes more sought-after, allowing you to actually RAISE your prices.

Let’s say the new restaurant offers interesting incentives to their customers or has an in-house jazz band on Friday nights. They send out regular email coupons and run engaging contests on social media. When someone shoots off a complaint on Yelp, rather than ignoring them out of irritation, the manager personally and quickly responds with a heartfelt note. Their delivery guy is always friendly and prompt—always.

It’s not just about the visual style of the location, menus, and logo. It’s about the experience of the brand as a whole. And you can’t imitate that.

So those are the facts. Now what?

Identify your true competitors

Xtensio competitive analysis tool

Xtensio’s competitive analysis tool offers you an online and brand strength snapshot of your biggest competitors. Have you used it?

Study companies whose annual revenue, marketing budget, product line, and company size are likely to be about the same as yours.

Entrepreneur.com provides a handy guide:

Evaluate your competitors by placing them in strategic groups according to how directly they compete for a share of the customer’s dollar. For each competitor or strategic group, list their product or service, its profitability, growth pattern, marketing objectives and assumptions, current and past strategies, organizational and cost structure, strengths and weaknesses, and size (in sales) of the competitor’s business. Answer questions such as:

  • Who are your competitors?
  • What products or services do they sell?
  • What is each competitor’s market share?
  • What are their past strategies?
  • What are their current strategies?
  • What type of media are used to market their products or services?
  • How many hours per week do they purchase to advertise through the media used in this market?
  • What are each competitor’s strengths and weaknesses?
  • What potential threats do your competitors pose?
  • What potential opportunities do they make available for you?

Xtensio offers a nifty online tool, or you can go old-school and follow the Entrepreneur.com guide, doing it on paper or in Excel.

Tell your story

All the numeric data and fancy graphics in the world can’t compete with the impact of your story on your customers.

It’s the reason Steve Jobs sold millions of iPods by skipping the technical specifications and simply stating that one thousand songs could now fit in your pocket. It’s the reason trial lawyers appeal to a jury’s humanity as much as the letter of the law. It’s the reason political candidates fight to define each other’s narrative. When human beings need to persuade people about ideas, we tell stories. 

—”Want Your Message to Stick? Tell a Story,” 99u.com

Remember: You’re not getting the whole picture

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What’s probably most valuable in competitive analysis is what your competitors are not showing or telling you. Perhaps there is just one element of their business that really sets them apart but that can’t be found on their website or in their literature. For instance, you don’t know how much each customer is costing them. Digital marketing, advertising, and coupons aren’t cheap.

You can make truly reliable decisions about your brand if you consider the weaknesses of your competitors rather than what you perceive they’re doing better.

  • How do you solve the customers’ problems better?
  • How have you solved similar problems in the past and how did people respond?
  • How can you relate to your consumer on their level by being personal?
  • Can you offer case studies or use social media Stories to share with your community?
  • What is the amount you’re willing to spend on coupons, online ads, and the like?

Use a little creativity to push a good idea a step further. Do it better.

Stand apart from your competitors, not alongside them.

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Sarah Williams

Founder & director of 816 New York and passionate about all things strategy.

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As the co-owner of a small business, I agree that it is crucial to really connect with the people we are serving. Letting them know who we really are and why our service is better than some others comes from our past history and also the way we interact with customers each and every day. I can’t waste time worrying about the competition. I focus on taking the best care I can of my clients and that includes keeping them well-informed in ways that fit into their lifestyle.