Copycats: How Smart Companies Use Imitation to Gain a Strategic Edgeby Oded Shenkar
In the business world, imitation gets a bad rap. We see imitating firms as 'me too' players, forced to copy because they have nothing original to offer. We pity their fate: a life of picking up crumbs discarded by innovators striding a path paved with fame and profit.
In Copycats, Oded Shenkar challenges this viewpoint. He reveals how imitation-the exact or
In the business world, imitation gets a bad rap. We see imitating firms as 'me too' players, forced to copy because they have nothing original to offer. We pity their fate: a life of picking up crumbs discarded by innovators striding a path paved with fame and profit.
In Copycats, Oded Shenkar challenges this viewpoint. He reveals how imitation-the exact or broad-brushed copying of an innovation-is as critical to prosperity as innovation.
Shenkar shows how savvy imitators generate huge profits. They save not only on R&D costs but also on marketing and advertising investments made by first movers. And they avoid costly errors by observing and learning from others' trials.
Copycats presents suggestions for making imitation a core element in your competitive strategy and pairing it powerfully with innovation, including:
· How to select the right model to imitate
· How to avoid oversimplification of a model
· Which imitation strategy to use
· How to prepare and execute an implementation plan
Engaging, practical, and rich in company examples, Copycats unveils how to add imitation to your competitive arsenal.
- Harvard Business Review Press
- Publication date:
- Sales rank:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.52(w) x 8.62(h) x 0.84(d)
Read an Excerpt
My docs: COPYCATS FINAL CH01
Chapter One: Fat Copycats Imitation is not only more abundant than innovation, but actually a much more prevalent road to business growth and profits (Theodore Levitt, 1966)
A few years ago I approached an acquaintance, a senior executive with a large national retailer, promoting a new marketing, technology-enabled tool developed by a foreign startup. The tool, embedding voice recognition technology in a novel marketing application, seemed especially suitable for that retailer who enjoyed a reputation as an industry trendsetter. My contact later returned with a question: was this a novel concept or has it already been in use? I proudly confirmed that the tool was brand new and that his firm was the first to be approached. "In that case”, followed the surprise response, "we are not interested”. When I wondered why, my acquaintance explained that "our policy is to never be the first to try something new; we will only consider the tried and true.”
My stunned reaction can be forgiven given the "Innovate, innovate, innovate” battle cries that fill the airwaves and computer screens. Innovation is the subject of hundreds if not thousands of publications that tout its magic and purportedly offer a recipe for how to make it happen. "Innovate or die” declared a commercial for a CNBC special which promised to "deliver the ultimate playbook for driving innovation forward” and reminded the viewer that "your company’s success depends on it.” The "innovation imperative” has become a catch phrase among scholars, journalists and executives. We are told that innovation is the fountainhead of corporate survival, growth and prosperity, and all we have to do is master it, excel in its delivery, and then laugh all the way to the bank to collect monopoly profit and "abnormal returns” until imitators show up. Imitators are presumably sentenced to poverty, making a meager living picking-up crumbs thrown off ingenious innovators. They act out of desperation, trying to catch up, which they never do because by that time innovators have moved on to bigger and better things. Whereas innovators enjoy a "sustainable advantage”, the benefits of imitation are, supposedly, flinching.
And yet, imitation is all around us, ranging from the legal (e.g., generic drugs) to the illegal (e.g., bootlegging of Hollywood movies), to the vast grey area spanning the two (e.g., tweaking a branded fast food concept). Seventy one percent of 48 key innovations were found to be imitated. The rate of brand imitation now exceeds 80 percent and more than that in certain product categories, for instance, all major cereal brands have been imitated. The same is true for processes, practices and business models, whether imitated by small time players like the hundreds of YouTube lookalikes, or by industry leaders such as Hertz, whose Connect car-sharing service shows an uncanny resemblance to the Zipcar model of the startup by that name. Furthermore, it seems that those left with the crumbs have often been the innovators. A study covering the 1948 to 2001 period found that innovators captured merely 2.2 percent of the present value of their innovations. As we shall see later, research often fails to find innovation to enhance profits, and even when it does, the boost is temporary. Tellingly, the more profitable innovations are those having a high rate of imitation, hinting at the potential synergy between these two seemingly contrasting phenomena.
Copycat Tales White Castle’s founder, Walter Anderson, the first to come up with the fast food chain concept in 1921, saw a slew of competitors descending on his restaurants recording anything from store design to operational routines. It did not take long for followers to surpass the original, today a minor player in the vibrant industry it had launched. Successful imitators have had, in turn, their own systems replicated, for instance McDonald’s drive-through, itself "borrowed” from others, was imitated by Rally’s, while Yum Brands bought into McDonald’s ideas regarding healthy fare and breakfast and dinner offerings for its Taco Bell and Pizza Hut restaurants. Diners Club was the first credit card issuer, but currently holds a miniscule share of a market ruled by Visa, Master Card and American Express, none of which have been around when Diners fought an uphill battle to introduce the then novel concept to banks, merchants, and the public. EMI came up with the CAT scanner in 1973, but lost market leadership in six years, and two years later exited the business, ceding the market to latecomers such as GE; a similar fate awaited RC Cola, whose Diet Cola innovation was appropriated by Coke and Pepsi. Sony introduced digital photography in 1981 but was soon overtaken by Japanese manufacturers of traditional cameras and by US late entrants such as Hewlett Packard (HP). These are not just anecdotes: many studies confirm that followers do better than pioneers and innovators. "Early and fast” second movers, essentially imitators, tend to do better than the first, and even "laggards” often do very well. Honda and Toyota took their time entering the minivan market, waiting for Ford and General Motors to be Chrysler’s first, initially successful followers, but eventually captured a substantial share of a segment which Ford and GM exited.
Some imitators do so well that they push the innovator out of business. Seeing the de Havilland Comet, the first passenger jet, in an air show in 1950, Boeing’s head proclaimed that 'he has seen the future’. A fatal design flaw led to a number of Comet crashes, and by the time a redesigned Comet came out, the Boeing 707 and the McDonald Douglass DC 8 dominated the market (a Chinese copy of the 707 dubbed the Y-10, never made it); de Havilland, with its proud tradition of aircraft innovation, was left out, its days as an independent firm numbered. Disney was a latecomer to movie animation, but became synonymous with the industry it has come to dominate. Remington-Rand was the first to commercialize the computer in 1951 but lost out to IBM, who entered the market in 1953 and outsold the pioneer in two years. IBM, which Peter Drucker has called "the world’s foremost creative imitator” which has "successfully imitated every major development in the office imitation field”, did not invent the personal computer either, but in 1981 was the first to turn it into a commercially viable product only to lose out within a decade to "IBM clones” led by Compaq and Dell. Atari pioneered computerized sports games in 1975 with the Pong, but was soon pursued by no less than seventy five imitators offering cheaper versions, including Nintendo which eventually became the market leader. Price Club was the only warehouse club operator in 1983, but within four years was overwhelmed by the 200 club stores opened by the eight largest chains. Prairietek, first to launch a 2.5 inch disk drive in 1989, dominated the market for a year before being swept aside by Conner Peripherals who captured 95 percent of the market, pushing Prairietek out of business. Spry, first to introduce a commercial web browser, lost out to Netscape’s Navigator which controlled 60 percent of the market within two months of launch, only to be defeated by Microsoft’s Explorer.
Not all imitators fare as well. Remington and L.C. Smith failed to capture a substantial share from Underwood, whose revolutionary typewriter design they copied. Many arrive to market after pioneers and early followers established an insurmountable lead or have flooded the market. Others stumble as they blindly follow the formula of a competitor whose capabilities they cannot match: explaining why Merrill Lynch and Citigroup suffered huge losses in the subprime loan market while Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan avoided much of the carnage, the Wall Street Journal suggested that was because Merrill and Citi wanted to emulate Goldman’s success minus the skills and experience to boot. Others fail to unearth the intricacies of a model, producing imitations that are not up to par, as twice happened to Delta in its failed attempts to clone a variant of Southwest Airlines.
The Imitator’s edge The argument for innovation seems well established. New products lead to higher sales and growth, for instance by targeting higher margin segments, lower costs by marketing new and improved products to existing customers and saving on the expense of attracting new ones, and transform firms’ capabilities so profits are sustainable. Impressive, but a close look will reveal that many of the same benefits accrue to able imitators, which may enjoy additional benefits not shared by the innovator. Having observed market reaction, imitators can better calibrate a product and are not encumbered by the investment sunk into obsolete technology and infrastructure. Since most productivity gains come not from the original innovation but from subsequent improvement, imitators are often better positioned to offer the customer something better and or cheaper. Even if the imitator’s search costs are higher, its overall cost is lower by 60 to 75 percent. A gap of that magnitude enables the imitator to make competitive moves ranging from passing the cost savings to the consumer to offering superior features, better distribution and service, or channel the extra margins toward, well, innovation.
With the innovator and pioneer paving the way, making much of the research and development and marketing investment, the second mover enjoys a "free ride”. It also avoids dead ends: generic drug makers not only leverage the investment made by the original developer but also reduce risk and save time and money steering clear of ideas shown not to work: close to ninety percent of drugs under development fail in the trial phase after an average investment of a billion dollars. While the innovator is granted a monopoly period during which it can try to recoup its investment, the first follower enjoys a monopoly of its own: the first generic maker to challenge the branded patent is granted a six months window of exclusivity during which the copycat may sell for as high as 80 percent of its branded equivalent. In the case of a blockbuster drug like Lipitor, this means a $1 billion return on a $13 million investment. Not a bad deal under any circumstances but an especially lucrative one given the low risk involved in following a route shown to work science-wise and market-wise. Since the innovator bears the investment of informing and convincing customers, the imitator also saves on marketing expenses. It can channel its efforts towards the "sweet spot” of superior return, and, by observing the outcomes of other trials, avoids costly mistakes. For instance, it can delay entry into markets that have not yet reached a critical mass. Or, it can work from a "dominant design” that has been established at someone else’s expense without risking a losing bet like Sony with its Beta video format.
With the benefit of hindsight, imitators capitalize on the shortcomings of the early offerings. Not only was Disney able to capitalize on the technical and organizational innovations of the early animation studios, he was also in a position "to discern the limitations of existing cartoon animation with its excessive reliance on cartoon strip characters, the weak or even non-existent stories, their over reliance on recycled formulas such as chases, the lack of characterization of central figures, and their poor visual quality”. Imitators can tweak the original to fit with shifting consumer tastes and adjust to new circumstances; and they can leapfrog into the next technological generation since they do not carry the sunk-investment made by the pioneer incumbent, are free of limiting routines, and can utilize an experienced workforce. This is what Samsung had done when it leapfrogged into the digital age, leaving behind an inferior base in analog technologies. This is also what Japanese and Korean semiconductors makers have done to capture a bigger slice of the pie from predecessors.
Imitators are also less likely to become complacent, a problem for innovators and pioneers who are so taken by their success that they underestimate the dangers lurking in the rear view mirror. Imitators, who come from behind, tend to be paranoid about others following in their footsteps and hence are better prepared to defend from imitation. As the CEO of Asustek, which started life as a component maker before becoming a branded notebook manufacturer, notes, "we can’t forget that there are people running after us.” Since may differentiate from the original, imitators are attentive to game-changing technologies whereas many pioneers stick to their original formula. The leading movie animation studios were reluctant to adopt sound and color when those became available whereas Disney and other late entrants were quick to realize their promise and used them to emerge as the new standard bearers. Since they often work from more than one model, imitators are constantly reminded that there is more than one way to go forward, a good precursor to, yes, innovation.
The Growth of Imitation Throughout history, species relied on imitation to survive and evolve, newborns depended on it to acquire vital capabilities, and adults leveraged it to survive in a hostile environment, prevail in the battlefield, make better machinery, and outdo rivals and protagonists. They have learned not to reinvent the wheel even before there was one. As communications and transportation improved, imitation opportunities widened. Globalization expanded the ranks of imitators and technological advances made imitation more feasible, cost effective, and much faster. It took 100 years for nineteenth century innovations to be exploited by less developed nations; inventions made in the second half of the twentieth century were copied, on average, within two decades. Imitations of the first phonograph have shown up in thirty years, compact disk players were imitated in three. The average time to widespread imitation declined from 23.1 years between 1877 and 1930 to 9.6 years for products introduced between 1930 and 1939 and 4.9 years for those introduced after 1940; the time before imitator entry declined by 2.93 annually. In 1961, it took twenty years for a new technology to diffuse; twenty years later, the imitation lag was down to four years, and, by 1985, information on development decisions was in the hands of competitors within a year and a half and information concerning the detailed nature of a product or a process leaked out, on average, within a year. Sherwin-Williams used to have its products imitated within a decade but when it recently introduced external paint that can be applied at 35 degrees Fahrenheit, extending the painting season, it took less than three years before every competitor introduced a copycat. Chrysler invented the minivan in 1984, remained the only maker for a decade and held on to a dominant market position; QQ, an imitation of a GM’s mini car by a Chinese firm, showed up within a year, outselling the original by a six to one margin in the China market. Kiwi shoe polishes were knocked off in Africa within six months of product introduction; counterfeiters now do it in six weeks. New cell phones are copied within six months of launch versus two years just a few years ago. Bootlegged versions of Hollywood movies used to show up soon after the premier; in 2009, a pirated version of "X-Men Origins: Wolverine” debuted a month before official release. In 1982, generics constituted 2 percent of the US prescription drug market but by 2007 they made up 63 percent. In the early 1990s, Cardizem lost eighty percent of the market to generic substitutes within five years of patent expiration; a decade later, Cardura lost a similar share in nine months, and Prozac, Eli Lilly’s blockbuster drug, in two months
Developing Imitation Capabilities In the past, imitation was more often than not a product of pure chance: the head of Boeing happened to see the Comet in an air show; Ray Crok stumbled upon the original McDonald’s restaurant whilst making sale calls for milkshake machines; and Japanese automobile executives visited American supermarkets out of curiosity when they noticed how merchandise was automatically replenished and were inspired to introduce a just-in-time production system. When Theodore Levitt surveyed leading firms he found that "not a single one had any kind of policy to guide its responses to innovations of others.” Today’s firms cannot afford to rely on chance alone but must comb the globe for products, services and ideas they can adopt and adapt. They need to recognize that imitation is neither mindless repetition nor a lucky strike but a creative and thoughtful process and an essential element in a viable strategy. They should regard imitation as a complex capability, which firms neglect at their own peril, and that the ability to imitate creatively is as much a part and parcel of competitive advantage as is innovation. Ironically, this is even more challenging to companies immersed in a culture of innovation. Often arrogant and susceptible to the "Not Invented Here” syndrome, innovators are more likely to reinvent the wheel and miss on the potential of imitation to generate new ideas, technologies and models.
Seeking an Innovation / Imitation Balance In and of itself, innovation never guaranteed profits. PARC, Xerox’s research unit, produced breakthrough inventions such as the PC visual interface, which have benefited Apple and Microsoft, but not Xerox. PARC’s director later reflected that he thought "99% of the work was creating the innovation, and then throwing it over the transom for dumb marketers to figure out how to market it, but then realized that "there is at least as much creativity in finding ways to take the idea to market as coming up with the idea in the first place”. Lacking a competitive advantage in technology, Dell elected to do just that and "innovate in time to market”, calling its direct distribution strategy "focused innovation”.” The strategy, which leveraged a superior supply chain and operational efficiencies, allowed low inventory and enabled Dell to undercut competitor prices and still pad its margins. Product design and technology were by and large imitated, as one analyst commented, "they innovate where creativity will buttress their core advantages, and they imitate elsewhere.” The strategy allowed Dell to hold its R&D spending to a quarter of that of HP and IBM. In an interview, Dell’s then CEO, Kevin Rollins, explained that If R&D spending is the driver of success, why aren’t IBM and HP make money in the computer business? We ask: If [product] innovation is such a competitive weapon, why doesn’t it translate into profitability? Either their innovation is a sham and their customers aren’t willing to pay for it; or we are spending the appropriate amount of R&D to get the right products with the right level of innovation for our customers. We’ve decided to innovate around adding value to our customers, rather than creating new odds and ends that nobody wants.
Dell’s strategy unraveled when, by 1998, "virtually every major PC manufacturer” has taken steps to match its direct sales model without giving up on retail channels, and when they started outsourcing production to factories in Asia, undercutting Dell’s cost advantage. Dell then turned to the retail channels favored by HP, but, as one observer lamented, "the problem is that they are taking on the king of the sales channel and their cost and capabilities are out of wack.”
HP, on its part, has been an innovation-driven company often criticized for not taking full advantage of its innovations. With competitive pressures mounting, HP put a lid on its R&D expenditure, started leveraging partner technology (e.g., outsourcing some logistic functions to UPS), switched from proprietary to industry-standard components, and extracted supply chain savings. The PC division moved to harvest technology from other parts of the business, and a merger with Compaq increased scale, helping reduce the ratio of innovation expenditure. It has turned away from innovation for the sake of innovation, replacing it with what it, like Dell, called "focused innovation”, with a goal "to invent technologies and services that drove business value”. Though HP would not say that much, this has meant imitating what was not worthwhile, or possible, to innovate. At the same time, says Steve Dunfield, a former HP Vice President, the Company leaned aggressively on suppliers that violated its IPR, increasing revenues and adding to the cost base of competitors. Still, Dunfield asks whether HP did not go too far in the other direction, reducing its innovation output to the point where a decade from now it might lack technological edge. Customers have also wondered whether the effort to produce "innovation that matters” has weakened HP’s unique innovative culture.
Indeed, the balance between innovation and imitation is a moving target. It was not until the early twentieth century that the pharmaceutical industry split between innovators and imitators. In the 1960s, a regulatory change created a generic category that eventually captured more than half the prescription drug market in the United States. Together with pricing pressures and assault on IPR, the business model of the innovators has frayed, pushing them to embrace imitation as a complementary strategy. In an interview explaining Pfizer’s decision to enter generics, David Simmons, general manager of the Company’s newly formed Established Products Unit, said that "we’re always about innovation, and it will always be the lifeblood and sustaining element of Pfizer, but we don’t see it as the be-all and end-all. Other innovators like Sandoz and Daichi Sankyo, who acquired a controlling interest in Indian generics maker Ranbaxy, have also made inroads into generics and some reduced their R&D outlays. The market seems to like the idea: when Valeant announced that it was cutting its R&D budget in half, its shares rose sixty percent. At the same time, imitators like Israel-based Teva, the world’s leading generics maker, have been working on new prescription drugs, and may have an easier time expanding into innovative activities than innovators have expanding into generics.
Imovation: Fusing Innovation and Imitation When we looked for firms that were consummate imitators, we were surprised to see that some of them were also known to be innovators. This was true of Wal-Mart, IBM, Apple, Procter and Gamble, Sherwin-Williams, PepsiCo, Cardinal Health, and General Electric (GE), among others. GE, a storied innovator and one of the most imitated firms, uses imitation to outmaneuver competitors with superior knowhow. Back in 1988, GE identified twenty organizations with superior track records and imitated selected practices. It borrowed Quick Market Intelligence from Wal-Mart and new product development methodology from HP, taking the time to observe their management teams, immerse in their cultures, and adapt the imports to its culture and circumstances. At the same time, GE continues to innovate around new products, new processes, and new business models.
Imovators understand that imitation is a creative pursuit that, if done right, can support innovation. As PepsiCo’s Nowell says, "even if we’re trying to innovate, we also want to know what other people have out there, so some of the innovation, as funny as it is now that you think about it, is driven by imitation.” Imovators have made a commitment to become, or remain, innovators, while simultaneously tapping the benefits that come from imitation. They have made a decision where to innovate and where to imitate, and have developed routinesSTRATEGIES that combine innovation and imitation in a way that cross-fertilizes both. As Nowell says, "even when we look to imitate, we say we’ve got to make it better and it turn into almost innovation.” Imovators understand that they need to, in the words of Cardinal Health’s Chairman and CEO R. Kerry Clark, "adjust and sweeten the mix” between innovation and imitation. P&G, while viewing innovation as its key differentiator, sees imitation as a key tool with which to maintain parity in areas where the firm is not the leader, or, as suggested by former Chief Technology Officer Cloyd, "where there are elements of parity, if someone has figured out a better way to do something or deliver something, you’re gonna use it; you’re not gonna feel a need to go out and invent some other way to provide the particular aspect.” PepsiCo’s Nowell views it in much the same way: "innovation we see as a clear competitive advantage; imitation is to make sure we’re not disadvantaged.”
To make the most of the fusion of imitation and innovation, imovators build on commonalities across the two platforms. At P&G, an "open innovation” system dismantles external and internal barriers to the flow of ideas, utilizes a reward system that monetizes contributions regardless of whether there are innovations or imitations, and is constantly focused on adaptation and implementation. This implies going beyond what is called at Battelle "Found with Pride” towards "Find and Reapply”. P&G set a goal of one third of its new products having elements not developed by the Company, but eventually exceeded it. Pharmaceutical maker Sanofi announced a similar target where half of the company’s drugs will come from outside firms, as compared to 10 percent today. Retailer Bad, Bath and Beyond teamed with Edison Nation to solicit new product ideas from female customers. The rising ratio of outside ideas and products lowers cost, shortens time to market, and improves the odds of capturing relevant ideas. This lets firms maintain and solidify their leading position by reducing the probability of a differentiated imitator catching up. Companies get to leverage their scale and scope to extract every bit of value from both its homegrown and imported product ideas, embedding them in a system that makes it difficult for imitators to pursue.
Imovators seek to use imitation without sacrificing their differentiated advantages. Continental Airlines, past its CALite fiasco (see Chapter 4), copied Southwest techniques such as quick plane turnaround without giving up its positioning as a full-service carrier known for new service initiatives. Target imitated Wal-Mart’s no frills supply chain and cost containment while perfecting upper market merchandising and service consistent with its market positioning. Imovators can focus the fusion of innovation and imitation around their key strategic junction, where the most important and impactful decisions are made, and where the fate of the Company and its products, or services, is determined. For P&G, this junction is the customer experience, or, in P&G language, the two "moments of truth” the purchase decision and the usage experience. Often, says P&G’s Cloyd, the distinctiveness comes not from new elements but from the way they are put together, or what we will later call "assembly” or "combinative architecture”.
1. Popular myths notwithstanding, imitation is often the road to profits
2. The pace of imitation is increasing rapidly
3. While many imitators do very well, others stumble for lack of capabilities or strategy.
4. Imovators are firms that know not only how to fuse imitation with innovation to create a competitive advantage Notes
Meet the Author
Oded Shenkar is the Ford Motor Company Chair in Global Business Management and Professor of Management at the Fisher College of Business, The Ohio State University, where he heads the international business area. A top scholar in international strategy, he is also a prolific author, and his work has been cited in numerous publications, including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and The Economist.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews