You don't build anything worthwhile by copying other people. Yeah, sure, it may seem like the safe thing to do, but it isn't.
Welcome to the fabulous world of the "also in".
Welcome to the wonderful world of the "why bother".
Okay, sure, not every product needs to be extraordinary. Not every product needs to be unique. I guess you could set out to publish a magazine that's a lot like Newsweek or Men's Health or Fast Company... only more "average". You could set out to produce a movie that's a lot like Titanic or Sling Blade or Gladiator, but... you know... more "average". You could set out to copy Subway or Jersey Mike's or Quizno's and make a subway sandwich, but... just a little bit more bland. A little bit less special. A little bit cheaper too, while you're at it. I guess that would be swell.
To make up for the blandness, you could always pay an ad agency to try and pick up the slack for you and miraculously come up with a brilliant viral campaign that may or may not have people flocking to your stores.
Yep, you could do that.
I guess you could wake up one morning and decide that your work, the fruit of your labors, could be just... um... average. No more, no less. As long as your business makes money, who cares, right?
Forget the great American novel. Forget the Chrystler Building. Forget the iPod. Forget the Canon EOS 1D. Release your movies straight to video and your books directly to the bargain house. Tell your kids to shoot for a C+. It's okay. Average is good enough.
Instead of designing your own products, find cheaper ones already being manufactured by someone else and pass them off as your own. Hope that no one will notice. As long as the profits are good, why not? Yep, I guess you could convince yourself that it's okay to go that route.
It isn't like you need to actually think about where your company is going. It isn't like you need to give any thought to the relationship you have with your customers. What role you play in their world. Instead, you can just watch what your competitors are doing, and copy their every move. You can keep cutting corners. You can keep telling yourself that's the safe thing to do. The smart thing to do.
You can keep telling yourself that if you make your products cheaper, you will sell more of them. After all, that's how your competitors are stealing your customers, isn't it?
Or is it better design?
Or is it because their stores have red walls?
Why be relevant, after all? Why be relevant when you can just play it safe and follow the leaders?
Is that what we learned to do in business school? Is that what we learned about in History class? In English comp.? Is that the lesson we've learned from watching millions of hours of sports on TV? Succeed by waiting to see what someone else will do to see if it's safe to try it too?
Is that what a a CEO or a CMO is paid to do?
You don't have to answer that.
Not if you don't want to.
Instead, think fast and tell me how many skyscrapers there are in New York City.
(For the sake of expediency, let's just say that there are LOTS.)
How many of those skyscrapers can you actually name?
Only a handfull?
Why is that?
Of the thousands of companies you'll encounter in your lifetime, how many will you actually remember as being worthy of mention? Of having been a pleasure to deal with? A few dozen at most?
Why is that?
Of the tens of thousands of people you will meet in your lifetime, how many will you end up being truly impressed by? How many will you come to count as friends?
Again, why is that?
What does that tell you about average?
What does that tell you about the value of average?
Consider a few names: Starbucks. Target. BMW. Apple. Pixar. Ben & Jerry. Kenneth Cole. Nike.
What is it about these brands that makes them so special?
Is it their ability to crunch numbers? Nope.
is it their ability to copy the guys who came before them? (Um... who would that be?)
Are their products the best in the world? Again, no.
Reality check: Most of your local coffee bars make much better coffee than Starbucks. Target's clothes are no better than old Navy's. BMW arguably isn't Porsche. Apple is nowhere near Microsoft's sales. Pixar doesn't always hit the mark. Haagen-Dazs makes the best Rum Raisin ice cream and Mayfield is pretty awesome too. DKNY, Express Men and Banana Republic give Kenneth Cole a run for his money. Most serious runners wear Mizuno, Asics or new Balance on their feet, not Nike.
So what is it?
Is it their ability to stand out? Sure, but that's only a symptom of their success.
What's key is their ability to a) create something special that their customers won't be able to find anywhere else, and b) do it over and over again.
That's the promise of these brands.
When you buy me, I promise that...
You will look hip.
You will sleep better.
You will save time.
You will smell fantastic.
Your cold symptoms will vanish.
You won't have to worry about quality.
Without a promise, a brand isn't a brand. It's just a mark.
There is no such thing as an "also in" brand.
Okay, now that you've read it, say it.
Really. Say it outloud:
"There is no such thing as an also in brand."
When you're an "also in," what is your promise? What is your purpose?
"We're kind of like Subway."
"We're kind of like Power Bar."
"We're kind of like CNN."
Think about it.
I don't care if you're a mechanic or a graphic designer, a chain of dry-cleaners or a rental car service. If you aren't there for a reason (other than just making money), you're doomed. It may not be today or tomorrow or next week, but someone with a purpose will come along to eat you up. A real brand. A real business.
It's just a matter of time.
If you're going to be a mechanic, be the best damn mechanic in your zip code. Or the most honest. Or the friendliest.
If you're going to design logos and layouts for clients, be the edgiest in your field. Or the fastest. Or the most pleasant to work with.
If you're going to open up a dry-cleaning business, either offer the best quality pressing or the fastest turnaround. Make drop-offs and pickups velvet-smooth. Make your customers want to come back and recommend you to their friends.
I could talk to you about the role that pride plays in building a brand, but I'll save that for another day.
The point is that being an "also in" company doesn't cut it. Not if you want to grow. Not if you want your company to go anywhere.
Not if you want to survive.
Copying other companies isn't a strategy, it's a death sentence.
Word to the wise: Don't be a follower. There's no safety in being second.