As kids, we’re obsessed with fitting in. Our deepest fears are centred around being left out and we make behavioural, fashion and even lifestyle choices to gain the approval of our peers. This continues well into our teenage years no matter how many times we hear the words “just because your friends are doing it, does not mean you should too.”
And then as we approach adulthood, almost overnight, the script flips and the most backhanded compliment you can give an adult is implying that they’re not special.
I like to think that brands are like people. At inception, brands are happy just for the chance to play in the category, fulfilling the same needs that the competition does. However, as they reach maturity, in an ideal world the best brands shed their “me-too” skins in pursuit of unique brand personas.
But a quick look across industries will show you that far too many brands are failing to grow out of “me-too” marketing. Colloquially termed ‘copycat’ marketing, the “me too” strategy is as big a problem for green horn brands as it is for even the most established brand names.
What exactly is “me-too” marketing? Exactly what it sounds like. You are running your marketing campaigns based on that of your competition. If your competitor unlocks a proposition saying “data is life,” you unveil a campaign saying “data is oxygen.” If your competitor runs a “smooth” campaign using influencers, you run a “smooth” campaign using influencers. Your competitor develops a new website, app or content strategy, you do the same.
While it is true that it will be foolhardy to not have a firm grip on what the competition is doing and level up to be more competitive where necessary– particularly when they make meaningful improvements to drive the category forward, the key word here is levelling up. In the dairy milk industry for example, when Cowbell moved to introduce sachet SKUs into the market, the brands that delayed in following suit simply set themselves up to lose market share.
Where the problem lies is when you see your competition putting out a marketing message that’s so good you become envious and start screaming to the world “Me too!! Me too! I do that too!”
The first and most obvious reason the me-too strategy is dangerous is that copycat marketing keeps you from innovating. When you are following a competitor’s strategy, you can be sure that they will always be a step ahead of you since the bulk of what you do is merely a derivative of theirs.
The second reason is that consumers are perceptive and can tell when a brand is being a clone. “Me-too” marketing tells your audience that you are the same as your competitors. You don’t want to be the same- you want to be better or at least different. Imitation sets you up as the “other guy” when you’re compared to the business who did it first. You become positioned as the people who created the knock-off, not the original. People are often willing to pay a premium for the original, but they want the knock-off to be deeply discounted.
The third reason “me-too” marketing is a poor strategy is that cloning your competitor’s strategy gives them an awful lot of confidence and tells them that they can get you to blink first.
Pepsi did this brilliantly in the early 1980s when they unveiled the “blind taste challenge” and convinced everyone including Coca-cola that the world thought Pepsi tasted better. This strategy was so convincing that Coca-cola forgot that taste tests are carried out blind and that brand preferences would continue to dominate when the product itself was placed in front of people, leading them to develop the classic failure that was ‘New Coke.’
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and “me-too” marketing, tells your competitor that they are doing something right. When you really think about it, especially in tight knit industries with only a handful of top players, the last thing you want to do is offer an ego boost to your competition. This confidence allows their marketing team to take more calculated risks that helps their brand grow even faster.
Yet another reason to quit the ‘me-too’ approach is that your competitors might not fully know what they are doing either. Someone defined marketing strategy as “traveling purposefully towards a yet unknown destination.” And like the horror stories of “copying” during exams, eagerly writing down what the supposed smartie pants next to you has written only to have them wipe it all off and start over because they suddenly realized they’ve been going the wrong way, there’s the very real possibility that decisions that you think are driven by thick data are really “vibes and insha allah”– an aggregation of internal opinions.
Finally, remember that if you’re ever going to cut through the clutter, your focus must be on differentiation. Asking questions like ‘why should customers pick me over the competition?,” “why do the people who currently buy from me do so to begin with?,” “how can I speak with my consumers in a way that they understand? and “is there a niche audience or positioning that works for my brand that my competitors are currently ignoring?”
Working these angles will help you stand in a different place to widen the differentiation gap.