Imitation Vs Innovation: Diminishing Line Of Clarity Between Innovation And Imitation

Published by MBA Skool Team, Published on May 21, 2012

The essence of doing business in a global, neo-liberalized environment often underlines the importance of pitting innovation against imitation. The world is a huge basket of resources and starting from simple ideas and concepts to products, ventures and businesses, everything is so readily available in today’s information age. Yet, we have new ideas, technology and innovations in various fields emerging time to time.

Purists will often be quoted lamenting the declining trends in innovation and criticizing the increasing use of mindless imitation, yet such laments are the most clichéd lines you will ever hear. Therein lies the paradox of distinguishing between the world of innovation and that of imitation.

What is pertinent to the debate is the diminishing line of differential clarity between innovation and imitation. What is a breakthrough to some may actually appear as imitation for others. Thus at the outset, it is imperative that we understand that there are no set rules to define either. Hence, as managers and businessmen, the onus is to define for ourselves on what is acceptable in the larger macro-environment and what we should ideally reject and jettison.

In the process, imitation, on occasions may appear more lucrative than innovation (ethics relenting). That however does not make it a law, otherwise companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook would not have commanded the kind of market leadership that they do today. It is equally important to note that all the companies mentioned above initially started off with imitation of an idea, yet their product offerings are largely known to be breakthrough innovations.

Imitation, surprisingly, can also perpetrate innovation. Monopolistic market for a certain product/ service offering for example, suggests the absence of imitation in that product/service category. This can have two repercussions. One, it often tends to have a narrower reach. Two, the offering does not experience further innovation since there is no competition and hence no need to alter the same. A classic example in this case would be Maggi’s basic product. It has not changed either taste or quantity of the product ever since the time it was launched (even though the product line and depth has altered).

On the other hand, imitation can at times lead to disastrous consequences for even brands that have remained perennial market leaders. The need for market leaders to imitate, spurts from declining sales and market share. However, in doing so, they often sacrifice their core brand value. Coca Cola learnt exactly this the hard way. When Pepsi started emerging in the cola segment eating into the sales of Coca Cola, the latter decided to replace its old formula with a sweeter variation.

After conducting extensive market research (spending almost $ 4 million on it) and blind taste tests, Coca Cola launched a new sweeter variant of its cola to combat the sweet Pepsi. This immediately led to a huge national uproar amongst consumers and customers vent their anger in the form of angry letters, formal protests and even lawsuits. Around ten weeks later, Coca Cola withdrew this new product and reintroduced the original cola, ‘The Real Thing’. By imitating the taste of Pepsi, Coca Cola had overlooked the great emotional attachment that consumers had with the original soft drink. In their quest to augment sales, they had unwittingly toyed with their own brand value.

Innovation should however not be confused with invention. Invention is stumbling on an idea and developing the same into a tangible or intangible offering. Innovation is merely a process through which that offering is further developed to incorporate newer features. A core product has to go through numerous innovations to achieve basic and augmented product stages. Businessmen need to ensure that they innovate within their product line from time to time, yet maintaining the brand equity of the same.

Imitation has always had a tinge of disreputable ring to it — great orators seldom give speeches extolling the virtues of the copycat. Innovation brings new things to the world, imitation spreads them; where innovators break the old mould, imitators perfect the new one; and while innovators win big, imitators often win bigger. Indeed, what looks like innovation is often actually artful imitation — industrialists see Apple’s real genius not in how it creates new technologies, but in how it synthesizes, augments and packages existing ones.

Imitation and innovation can also be examined in light of ideas, concepts and intangible things. For example, the Blackberry Ad in India positioning itself as a mobile for not just office guys, but also the youth, is actually a copy of a similar ad in the West. Similarly, music and literature are also often imitated blatantly from not-so-well-known sources and modified and packaged to sell better.

Some call it cheating, fraud or stealing. Others call it borrowing or even inspiration. Yet from a business point of view, keeping in mind corporate ethics, the prerogative of the businessman is to ensure that his objective is met, even if it may at times mean sacrificing the image of a creative sacrosanct entity. The Blackberry Boys ad very effectively achieved its purpose in positioning the brand which in turn resulted in a surge in sales.

This also brings to fore another interesting facet of imitation and innovation. Very often, an imitation may not be detected at all, if it is very cleverly camouflaged. We witness umpteen cases in all fields of corporate life, ranging from stealing blueprints of HR practices, to operations management, to product development, etc. However, a good company should also have a strong R&D team which tirelessly works to bring in more and more innovation.

Organizations inherently look to maximize profit, generate more sales, build better brand image. In doing so, they need to follow a trail of thought to successfully achieve supremacy--- the realization that invention spawns innovation, innovation inspires imitation and imitation spawns the overall success of the enterprise. To put the same into perspective, summarizing in Shiv Khera’s words, ‘Winners don’t do different things, they do things differently”.

This article has been authored by Aurgho Ghosh from FORE School Of Management.

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