The Difference Between Innovative and Imitative Brands

Recently, there have been an increasing number of imitative brands trying to pass off their ideas as innovative. Despite the negative terms used to describe copies of an original (terms such as “fake,” “knock-off” and “counterfeit”), there are many businesses that are cheap imitations of higher quality, innovative brands. If you come across an imitative brand in your field, the sham is probably easy to spot. However, in other cases, it might not be easy to see the difference between authentic and artificial.

If you see familiar content on social media but have never heard of the person or business posting it, chances are, they have an imitative brand. This imitation isn’t always deliberate, and many people/businesses make this mistake unknowingly. It’s extremely difficult to build a business — and almost impossible, nowadays, to be 100% original! Sometimes, when the imitation is intentional, it’s because it seems so much easier to duplicate ideas that have worked than to create something new. Though it’s certainly easy for other entrepreneurs to empathize with that feeling, imitation is not the way to become a leading authority.

So why do people invest their money, time and energy into an imitative brand? Because they’re drawn in by the deceiving allure of a red ocean marketing strategy.
Woman reading ingredient information on food label
A red ocean strategy is based on the philosophy that businesses should follow the market. If the market is experiencing a high demand for a product or service, any business would be smart to offer it, right? The problem with this strategy is that the more an idea is imitated, the fewer success stories.

Companies end up swimming in shark-infested waters and engaging in bloody competition for market share. If a business has the same offerings for the market as numerous others, over time they can only compete on two levels:

  1. Price: Companies sacrifice profits to undercut one another in their attempts to be the best investment.
  2. Time: At the cost of quality, programs or services that typically take longer to complete are offered in an expedited amount of time due to a market that demands instant results.

Ultimately, when businesses deploy a red ocean strategy, they compete in a race to the bottom.

So, what should you do instead? Climb out of the red ocean, take a look at yourself, your business, and your brand, and determine how you’re different. You can facilitate this process by answering the following questions:

  1. Where did you grow up and what made that experience special?
  2. What were the stereotypes, teachings, and values that you were exposed to as a child, and how have they impacted the adult you grew up to be and the business you chose to build?
  3. What have you studied (in school and beyond) and what do you love most about those subjects?
  4. What lessons have you learned from your studies that, as unrelated as they may seem, apply to what you’re doing in your career?
  5. How does your one-of-a-kind point of view help differentiate your business and make you the best choice compared to others in your market?
  6. How have the places you’ve traveled and the people you’ve met along your journey helped shape you into the person you are today, and how does this impact your business decisions?

Every aspect of your life has contributed to the multi-faceted personality you bring to your work. You can take what you’ve learned from those seemingly disconnected experiences to build an innovative brand that authentically embodies the unique perspective and value only you have to offer.

That said, sometimes an individual will make the mistake of drawing upon their past in a way that inhibits what they do now. This can turn a potentially advantageous life lesson into a major disadvantage for their career. For example, someone might share how being friends with people who make bad decisions has helped them become a great life coach. Alternatively, maybe they explain how their previous work with a terrible company taught them how to operate their own business more efficiently. Though something similar might be true for you, it’s important to frame your story in a way that isn’t off-putting.
Smiling female working with a client
If you publicize details about everything a former client was doing wrong before they hired you as a consultant (even if you’re sharing that information to explain how you helped), a potential client will be more concerned with the fact that you’re willing to badmouth the people with whom you’ve worked. This is a mistake that will likely cost you their business. Instead, if you describe the positive results that came from your consulting as opposed to focusing on the ways others failed, you’ll get across why you’re expertly qualified and let potential clients know you won’t judge them for their mistakes or talk badly about them.

When building your brand, performing an audit of your industry and niche is best practice; the problem occurs if you don’t stop comparing. Nothing will propel you faster into feeling like and becoming an imposter than if you’re constantly checking in on your competitors. You’re not a cookie, so stop using cookie-cutter approaches! If you’re selling what 10,000 others are also selling, you need to figure out how your offer — and you — can be different.

Your ideas need to be original, but the way you promote those ideas does not. If you’re going to imitate anything, replicate what successful businesspeople do to gain visibility, grow awareness, and get leads. But keep in mind that a good marketing strategy alone is not enough to establish yourself as the go-to authority in your field. Imagine your ideal customer is scrolling through their Instagram feed, and they come across your content amid a slew of posts that are practically indistinguishable from one to the next. Even if your post is slightly better than the rest and they happen to like it, your brand still doesn’t stand a chance. Why? Because 15 minutes later it will be forgotten.
Woman lying on a couch scrolling through Instagram feed
Innovative brands look different and make their audience feel different than imitative brands. When you own a business, you strive to be a thought leader, effectively creating a category of one in your field. That category of one is the holy grail — the celebrity status of what you do. Whether you’re a life coach for seniors who are seeking a post-retirement plan or you’re just starting a new business, trying to figure out what your signature offer will be, your goal is the same. You want to emerge from the red ocean of sameness and differentiate your offer as the best investment, making your brand look, feel, and speak to your audience in a way that is unique from your peers and resonates with your ideal customer.

You don’t need to be the best option for everyone. Consider who you need to be to attract your target audience, focusing on your ideal customer or client and doing what it takes to become their go-to. Think to yourself, “What are they looking for, and why do they want the things they want? What’s a solution that’s valuable enough that they’ll be willing to invest in it, and how do I show up and deliver what they need?” If you ask yourself these questions, your ideal clients or customers will be willing to step into your circle of influence, follow your social media pages, and even take the time out of their day to read your blog or listen to your podcast and leave you a review.

What you should take away from this is a process that will propel your brand forward. First, perform a visual audit, paying close attention to where you show up online and how you present yourself. Then, ask yourself, “Am I an imitator, replicating whatever appears to be working in the market, or am I an innovator, addressing a need in my way and bringing my unique set of skills to my branding efforts?” Finally, choose to be an innovator and use the strategies written here to make it happen.

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