The problem with copycat branding

I had the chance this week to meet and talk with a highly respected blogger who’s developed a strong brand for herself. So strong, in fact, that there have been a few others trying to trade on her unique name by using derivations. On the one hand, clearly she’s created a compelling brand if others want to trade on it. Beyond the catchy name, there’s the quality of her writing, observations and strategic thinking. And perhaps some think they may get a jumpstart on the perception of their own brand if they’re mistaken for the association. (I’m speculating here as I’ve not talked with these others, but before meeting her, had stumbled across them and paused briefly).

While there may be no license, necessarily, on such derivations, that other people email her sometimes with confusion on the association, or to comment on how close the name seems is where the problem lies. It’s a highly memorable name and one not easy to forget. Nor easy to pass off as an innocent coincidence when you’re operating in the same niche. Too close an association always looks suspicious.

This goes for any knockoff brand. Imagine if I were interested in starting a shoe company. Perhaps one that made hip athletic shoes. I’d researched the market and come to really like that shoe company in Beaverton. What a great name I think. They’re pretty successful. So I create a new company named Snike. Would that fly? Beyond the fact I’m sure I’d hear from a lawyer or two, how hard would it be for me to EVER mount a successful brand launch? Or get people to not be confused by the name? And if I somehow managed to create products that were better, why would I want the other company to get the credit? If my products were shoddy and I got people to buy them by mistake, do you think they’d return for more? Not likely. Either way, I lose. Only someone looking for a short-term boost might think this was wise.

Or maybe I wanted to create my own mp3 player and started a tech company with a friendly human name. Perhaps I’d call it Pear because there’s that other tech company with a fruity name. So maybe these are extreme examples, but hopefully you get the point.

What I find curious is the rationale for copying a successful brand – particularly in the blogosphere. Such a close association makes it really hard to stand on your own. To be recognized for your contribution. Your voice. To successfully differentiate yourself. Why operate in another’s shadow? Why not come up with your own creative, meaningful name that represents what you offer and brand it. Sure, it might take a little work but get it right and you’ll have a fighting chance. Couple your own great name with incredible products and now you’re building a valuable asset. One that’s your own – not trading on someone else’s coattails.

I also had the privilege to hear Bill Rancic speak this week and two things he said resonated with me about why some people succeed and others fail.

  1. Successful people make decisions. Right or wrong, they choose. They don’t get hung up on analysis paralysis.
  2. They execute. Many people talk about their great ideas, but few really execute. Or execute well. Because that’s really hard work.

Respect the successful brands around you in your space. But create your own. With your own voice and personality. Copy someone else and you just made it really hard to earn trust and gain credibility. No matter how good your content might be. You’ve planted the seed of doubt in the reader’s mind: is this person’s thoughts their own or also ‘borrowed’. The online world is already crowded with me too chatter.

Successful bloggers work really hard on their content – consistently giving their readers valuable content and advice – for free. I don’t post often enough here because I need to invest more focused time organizing my thoughts and getting them down. The blogger I reference above meticulously researches her content and often spends 6 hours crafting a great post. You can tell she executes. Consistently. You gain a lot of points if you cite your sources, giving credit where it’s due. How would you feel if the tables were turned? And the hard work you poured into your content was simply ‘borrowed’.

Copycat branding in the online world especially is a lose-lose proposition. It may seem a convenient short cut in the near term, but it’s not worth the damage to your reputation or lost connections with those you’ve copied. Nor does it allow you to differentiate yourself long-term as someone to respect and support.

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