Creative Imitation: Never fail at imitation


Creative imitation, what comes to mind? That’s most likely a contradiction in terms! You ask yourself - How can an imitation be creative? Well, that is just why it is called an imitation!

This kind of conversation is likely going on in your head right now. Many people believe that it is better to fail at being an original than to succeed at being an imitator. If you have this belief, you might just be letting business opportunities pass you by. However I hope that when you are done reading this, you embrace the idea of becoming a potential imitator and a creative one at that.

Creative imitation is a strategy. An entrepreneurial strategy. A strategy that companies and businesses should be aware of and be ready to deploy appropriately when they get the chance to do so.

We all know what an imitation is not, it is not original. In creative imitation, what the entrepreneur does is something that is not new; something that has already been done by someone else in the same or different industry or in a foreign country. However, it is creative because there is an innovative tweak to the original. Typically, any entrepreneur who employs this strategy waits until someone has established the new and then he goes to work. And within a short time he comes out with what the new really should be. The creative imitation comes out with the standard and takes over the market.

I’ll be considering a company/product that failed at imitation (I can’t call it creative imitation, because I don’t think they actually had this strategy at the back of their mind. I’ll also consider a company that was successful in deploying the strategy. All of this is my personal observation and opinion.

1. Minimie Chin-chin Versus Gala Chin-chin

The first time I saw gala chin-chin, I swore never to buy it. My reason was basically predicated on product loyalty. It was a potential huge competition for the product I was becoming addicted to. Apart from that, I really appreciated the entrepreneurial and innovative spirit of Dufil foods to discover a better way of producing, packaging and marketing one of the most common snacks in Nigeria: chin-chin. I had the ‘why did I not think of this moment’ and I’m sure so many people and companies had that too. In a way, I was angry at Gala, why did they not think of this? After all, it was their industry. Now, someone else did and they are imitating even at a lower price! I knew this was a threat, however, what I didn’t realize till I tasted it was that it was nothing more than an imitation, an inferior imitation. The low price was to compensate for the very low quality! I wondered: Why should anyone fail at imitation?
To do creative imitation, one should study the status quo, conduct market research and discover the loopholes in it and the general reaction and behaviour of consumers. Minimie has worked hard to redefine consumer’s behaviour and preference. I’m certain that Minimie chin-chin did not enjoy this much acceptance when it first entered the market. We all really used to enjoy our home made chin-chin. I used to buy chin-chin a lot from my classmate who sold. However, over the years, we all started to accept the idea of a chin-chin that is healthy-without the oiliness home-made chin-chin usually have-with a consistent taste and better packaging. So, Gala was taking a less-risky path. Minimie had taken all the risk on our acceptance. Gala just had to ride on the acceptance that Minimie had created. Now let’s assume that Gala had done something creative and different like flavoured chin-chin which would have been a step ahead of Minimie. With the fact that they were ‘the king of snacks’… ‘since 1962’; a better-recognized brand for  snacks, it would have been a big competition and probably even regained leadership in that market. If they had studied the market well instead of rushing to release a competing product, they would have been successful imitators redefining what the new should be.
  Consumers are not irrational. Offering the product at a lower cost wasn’t the breakthrough, obviously, a better quality product would have been more swaying.
Let’s consider another example

2. Uber/Bolt Versus Taxi

There are many ride hailing apps today. If you grew up or live in Lagos, You should be able to recall the sight of the Yellow Cabs that used to be really dominant. As a child, I really loved it whenever we went to a far distance and hired a taxi back home. It meant that I didn’t have to fight with much more older people to get into the bus, or suffer from the smell of sweaty bodies, it meant that the long ride home would be very comfortable and stress-free. But it also had its problems, the accessibility wasn’t so easy and if you were in a hurry, you knew better than to wait till you found one. Also, the pricing was not predictable. It varied based on different factors.
Now you might be wondering, how did UBER come into the den of creative imitators? Let me explain.

Over the years, the Taxi system has evolved from carriages powered by animals to gas-powered carriages. It has catered for people’s need for a safe, private, comfortable and fairly accessible transport system.  With many years of dominance of yellow and black cabs, the loopholes in the Taxi system began to become apparent. It was quite difficult to locate a taxi in an unfamiliar city. There was an upgrade to how fast people wanted things and it couldn’t meet up. That’s where Uber comes in.
Uber is at its basic a taxi company, only that they own no taxi because it is a technological company. What I understand Uber did was to imitate the taxi system, search for its faults and use innovation to provide solution to a system that already enjoys global recognition and acceptance.

Uber basically took most customers of the Taxi system with a faster, more accessible system. This is what creative imitation is. Using technology to improve a dominant system is how Uber creatively imitated that system.

Innovative and creative imitation is a smart and excellent business strategy. It isn’t a mindless repetition of the original. It is not a copy-cat or “me-too” edition of a product. It is a careful and intelligent search for change. The imitation does not necessarily have to be of competitor’s product or strategy or a new trend in one’s industry. It is very instructive for entrepreneurs to actively search for change that is worth imitating in a similar industry in a foreign country or in a different industry entirely and creatively imitate it.

Creative imitation isn’t a bad thing. In fact, people argue that it is more profitable and less daunting to creatively imitate than to innovate. Innovation is expensive, risky and requires hard-work. There is no certainty that the innovation would be accepted by consumers and even if it will, it takes a really longer period. Innovation is enviable and something every entrepreneur should aim to. However, disregarding creative imitation is a big mistake that should be avoided.

Facebook was a creative imitation of some Harvard student’s project  and Samsung is a worthy imitator of Apple. Don’t be caught up in the frenetic need to always innovate, sometimes, the best thing is to creatively imitate an innovation.

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