The Sincerest Form of Flattery

In this week’s Business Surgery, Simi Dhawan takes a look at the role of ‘copying’ within product and service development.

Being intrinsically nosy, it is no surprise that I have found myself in research. Of particular interest, is anything related to new product development – where the words ‘innovation’ and ‘creativity’ are frequently bandied about as USPs. Given this interest, I was intrigued to read Lucy Kellaway’s article in the FT which discussed academic arguments towards social behaviour claiming that ‘almost all our decisions are based on copying’. The theory suggests that as time goes on and we are faced with more decisions and busier diaries, we tend to learn from others and do more copying.

From a business perspective, whilst copying might bear negative connotations as the “cheat’s” way, by contrast, it is a practice that most successful businesses have actually mastered! A perfect example is the smartphone. Whilst many versions exist, making it hard to distinguish a clear product definition, broadly speaking, this is a mobile phone built on a mobile computing platform (the operating system that controls it – like Windows), enabling it to perform more advanced functions than a standard phone. Whilst IBM introduced the first smartphone in 1992 – the ‘IBM Simon’ (as seen below), more advanced smartphone products now make up the base of every leading phone manufacturer’s product portfolio. A clear case in point that ‘copying’ and advancing others’ ideas is not only commonplace, but canny business practice in getting ahead of competitors and capitalising on existing markets created by their products and hard work!

There are many such historical examples in business, although you would meet with some resistance in getting people to proudly declare that the basis of their creative innovation is imitation. Whilst (not surprisingly) there is stigma attached in linking the two together, I agree with Lucy Kellaway’s notion that it is less a “necessary evil” but a skill to be embraced and perfected. This is a topic that has been the subject of much scholarly debate for many years. An article by Theodore Levitt in the Harvard Business Review in 1966 made the point that our business world increasingly bows to innovation – seeing it as the pre-requisite to business survival and growth – a view that still stands true 25 years on. However, the article also goes on to explain that whilst we see a continual flow of seemingly new products and services enter our market, strictly speaking, these are actually not innovations at all but imitations of previous products where he argues that imitation is “not only more abundant than innovation, but actually a much more prevalent road to business growth and profits”.

Tied in with this, as an avid viewer of the TV series ‘Dragon’s Den’ (clearly the pinnacle showcase of all revolutionary product development), amidst the public annihilation of prospective entrepreneurs for our shameless entertainment, the ‘Dragons’ appear to cap the risk of their investments by researching a couple of basic principles, namely:

• Is there an existing market for this product?

• Is there a patent in place to protect this product?

Fundamentally, all of what we need to know can be primarily captured in sales potential and product demand (to ensure growth), paralleled with measures taken to reduce competitor imitation (allowing us to enjoy product differentiation for as long as possible). In fact, the very existence of patent protection is evidence alone that imitation and copying forms a large part of everyday business practice!

Equally, more than most, product development teams recognise that the spurring on of “new” ideas does not happen in isolation of existing ideas. In fact, very much like the atoms that make up every human being which are in a constant state of change, product development is also a continuum and never at a standstill. A stream of thoughts piled on top of thoughts, advancing and changing all the time. Indeed, in B2B research, we’re often directing insights to our client’s “product development team” rather than a “new product team” per se. More than this, since most patents are only secured for a fixed period of time (rather than being infinite), this demonstrates wide recognition that businesses reserve the right to eventually access others’ ideas and build upon these, where this is an essential part of product development and innovation. Just imagine if we were all still reliant on using the ‘IBM Simon’!

As a junior researcher, I entered my role condoning the mantra that “the best products solve a problem”. Now, several years on, experience and common sense suggests that “the best products often solve problems with existing products”. Whilst I always relish an opportunity to test a new product or concept, this is often an adaptation or “add-on” feature to an existing product, rather than something that is completely revolutionary. In B2B markets, whilst the words ‘copying’ and ‘imitation’ might offend our clients and perhaps demean all of their hard work in bringing something new to the fore, the intelligence that they gather from working with us when it comes to testing their concept or benchmarking this against competitor products, suggests that they fully understand these principles as forming an integral part of business behaviour. If they are not learning from what competitors are doing, then they are learning (and developing) their products from the feedback and ideas obtained from their customers or end-users. It is this mass overlay of available information that allows them to progress their ideas and concepts, so as to implement them more effectively.

In short, I am not arguing that adaptations to existing products or services are not examples of innovation in business terms. Rather, these are the best examples when they can drive sales and growth. Therefore, businesses need to both recognise and act upon such principles by focusing their attention on competitive intelligence as a catalyst for their own ideas or new market opportunities. If the words ‘copying’ or ‘imitation’ sound misguided or offensive, then call this “product development”, “rejuvenation” or “replenishment”. In fact, call it what you like, but know that successful imitation will see you grow. Learning from others will not only save you time, but see your business replicate the countless successes of others that have done the same – a lesson certainly worth copying.

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