The imitation game: how to react to marketing copycats

No matter what business you're in, your competitor will always copy your successful marketing ideas. But how you choose to deal with it is up to you

The imitation game: how to react to marketing copycats

“I guess it did look kind of weird at first, but it felt so natural that, like all good ideas, you just wonder why no one had thought of it before me.” When Dick Fosbury began to challenge the longstanding technique for the high jump with his ‘flop’ as a teenager, little did he know he’d change the face of the event for decades to come. Initially mocked for his unconventional method of clearing the bar, after winning gold at the 1968 Olympics Fosbury’s style quickly became the standard for the overwhelming majority of high jumpers and has remained so ever since.

It’s one of the more famous examples of copycatting but it’s far from the only one. Writers, musicians and politicians all do it as do tech giants, drinks companies and retail brands. Regardless of your field, if you’re good at something then people will copy you. It’s an inevitable part of being in business and in the competitive arena of franchise recruitment it’s almost guaranteed that if you hit on a winner with your marketing, you’ll soon see a competitor using suspiciously familiar messaging or ideas.

Infuriating or flattering? The visceral reaction is usually the former: after investing time and money into your marketing, having a competitor pinch your ideas is irritating to say the least. But once the initial rage clears you should see it as a huge compliment. The first thing to remember if your marketing is being copied is that you’re a leader and any brand that’s simply following you is always going to be a step behind. In a world where differentiation means someone investing in or passing over your franchise, leading is the only position you want to be in.

Taking the lead

That’s all well and good in theory, but in practice you need to work hard to maintain your advantage and stay ahead of the followers. A good place to start is by focusing on a few things that can’t easily be replicated – followers can only imitate what they can see. As Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book, put it: “They copied all they could follow but they couldn’t copy my mind, so I left them sweating and stealing a year-and-a-half behind.”

There are two centrally important ingredients of your business that a rival can’t copy – your story and your culture. Every franchise has a great story to tell, whether it’s how and why your business was formed, your growth within your sector, your personal journey or something else entirely. Storytelling is essential to connect with your audience and it requires authenticity and originality. By displaying your evolution as a business and incorporating it into your marketing, you’re offering prospects something unique.

Similarly, your culture should shine through. Whether playful or corporate, cheeky or impassioned, effective franchise marketing reflects who you are as a business. If someone’s nicking your ideas, then there’s likely a dysfunction between who they are and the messages they’re using. And for prospects investigating different opportunities, that dysfunction raises a potential red flag.

Finally, don’t underestimate the importance of your content. Any prospect worth their salt will look at competing franchises in detail as part of their due diligence and if you have a strong historical content trail supporting your core messages, you will clearly be more credible. Regular and high-quality content is a must to appear fresh and exciting and to back up your marketing, which is also hard for another brand to copy if they’re a step behind.

Innovate beats imitate every time

If your anger at being copied continues to burn, then channel it to your advantage. Use that energy to redouble your efforts and leave your followers further in your wake. Standing still in business means going backwards, so take the competition as a healthy sign of preventing complacency and keep your focus on staying ahead of the field.

If somebody’s looking to you to see what you do next, then they’re not concentrating on carving out their own position as a leader. Innovation and evolution are central to every successful franchise. Marketing is no exception. Look at how much communications have changed in the last few years alone: the way you engage with prospects now is radically different than it was five or ten years ago and so are the messages you’re using. Refreshing your marketing consistently keeps it current and reflects your business where it stands today – not where it was 12 months ago.

Another way to differentiate your brand and innovate in your marketing is through the use of time-limited campaigns, perhaps related to a time of year, a season, an event or something topical. For example, if you seek parents as franchisees you could focus on a particular time of the school year and incorporate how they’re feeling at that time into your marketing; mobile franchises that get people out and about can capitalise on spring and summer to showcase that lifestyle. By planning ahead and launching a campaign to coincide with a particular timeframe, your copycat will be on the back foot and by the time they’ve caught up you’ll have wrapped up your results and be ready for the next.

When you’re trying to shake off the competition, remember the core elements of creating your marketing strategy. Stay close to your franchisees and prospects, listen carefully to what attracted them to your franchise and where they found you. Learn their pain points inside out, how they think and feel and take your marketing to the next level by speaking to them through the channels they use in a fresh and exciting way. While your copycats are spending time lifting ideas from you, you’re already thinking about blazing a new trail. That turned out pretty well for Mr Kipling and it will for you too.

Paul Stafford
Paul Stafford