Should You Innovate or Imitate?

A couple of years ago, I began to document all of the creatively-driven businesses that I’ve worked with closely, and built a simple diagnostic tool by which to assess the characteristics that were common to those that were successful, as well as the traits and practices of those that were not. 

It’s become a powerful body of work. And, although confidentiality means it will never be published, its growing value as an objective reference and reminder gives me powerful insights about what makes a good company great, and a great company unstoppable.

What surprises me sometimes is how obvious some of these insights appear in hindsight. Which does not make them less valuable. Unlike most precious commodities, the more common the sense the more it is worth.

One of the key variables I’ve tracked is the result of changes that are driven by innovation and those that are driven by imitation. Both have a specific role to play in the longevity and success of a business. 

Most business leaders spend much of their careers studying and often worrying about the competition. If they see something work, they copy it. Sometimes they improve the practice, sometimes they do it less well. But most industries are filled with imitators. Which is why when economies struggle, very few companies can outperform their own industry.

Those that do are driven by innovation. Not imitation. Apple being an obvious example.

In a conversation with the brilliant designer and architect Ron Pompei yesterday, he said something that struck me immediately. “You can’t innovate by looking within your own industry. I don’t care who you are.” 

Ron and his company, PompeiAD, were responsible for the concept and design of Anthropologie, a brand that has made individuality scalable in that of its 135 stores, no two are exactly alike.

Consumers value the consistency of expectation and performance of national brands because a brand defines a minimum set of expectations. Most of our retail experiences are defined not by a sense of surprise, but by a sense of satisfaction. We got what we came for for a price that represented sufficient value for the transaction to have taken place. The variables are our emotional connection to the prospective purchase. Dishwashing liquid, lower. Clothes, higher. At least for most people. Self-image being another variable.

The business genius of Anthropologie’s founder, Dick Hayne - he also founded Urban Outfitters - was the recognition that combining the unexpected with brand consistency would create a different emotional connection with the consumer. One of discovery and unknown possibilities, supported by a minimum threshold of expectation.

This sense of risk-free adventure would increase traffic. Anthropologie became the emotional equivalent of an upscale flea-market (to use PompeiAD's description), but without the concern that you might have an entirely wasted trip.

People love surprises. People hate surprises. Sometimes you can square a circle. This insight came to Dick Hayne not because he was a retailer who had studied retailers. But because he was an anthropologist who had studied people. 

This perspective allowed him to innovate.

It is a perspective that every industry in the world can benefit from, and one which happens when you find a way to step back and take a different look at why you’re in business and what really matters to your customers. Personally.

But while innovation drives growth and competitive advantage, it is not a platform for sustainability.

Being successful in the long-run requires you imitate. Best practices especially. All of which come market tested, refined and proven. Extraordinary value once they are in place.

The key is knowing what those are and having the capacity to customize them so that they are applied sensitively to your unique culture. A best practice can quickly become a worst practice when mis-used.

So, the answer to the question posed at the outset is this.

Innovate in order to create competitive separation. 

Imitate to keep it.