To many of us, this seems eminently sensible: why not understand your direct competitor’s product as well - if not better - than they do themselves?
Why not try to see how they have solved some of the abiding problems in the category? Why not see where they’ve placed their bets? And why not use this analysis to copy across the competition’s answers to these problems?
Well, that’s where the value of competitive analysis and what we know as “benchmarking” part company: benchmarking goes beyond understanding and encourages us to do as the others do. This is particularly so when the financial spreadsheet mindset is in charge: seeing the cost of items as the key dimension can drive everything else.
Benchmarking is copying, for sure: copying what close competitors do. And this is where its downsides lie. Very quickly - as one McKinsey study of the German telco industry demonstrates - it drives the value out of a market as it reduces differentiation. As each offering in the market becomes more like all the others, why would anyone pay more for A than B? And how can anyone one manufacturer generate a superior margin (other than by squeezing the supply chain, which all the others will then want to do to)?
Let’s be clear. It’s not the fact that benchmarking is copying that is the problem - it is the type of copying that it represents. It’s what you might call “Single White Female” copying, after the film of the same name in which one of the two female leads gradually adopts the appearance and identify of the other. It’s creepy as well as dull. And it makes everything the same.
By contrast, good copying is used by those who want to create difference - artists, poets, musicians, scientists and, yes, all the innovators and inventors. Good copying lies at the heart of creativity. And the difference between good and bad copying is as simple as this: bad copying is what a machine would do. Replication. Precise and endlessly repeatable replication. Good copying makes errors - indeed, it revels in the errors it creates.
Archeologists and anthropologists - who take a rather longer time frame of human behaviour than the rest of us - distinguish between invention (what we generally call innovation and creativity) and innovation (what we might call good copying). In the long run, they say, the first is as rare as hen’s teeth - the latter, by contrast, happens every day.
Indeed, you might say it is essentially human. People take something, copy it and create something slightly different (whether or not they intended to do so). Think of how each telling of a story or a joke varies slightly; how each performance of a song is ever-so-slightly different; each particular version of a fashion or styling evolves from the previous one; and how, as these things spread by individuals copying what they’ve seen, the whole thing mutates.
This is what good copying does - it creates the new and the original, whether you like it or not. But if you do like it, then good copying is your #1 hack and - in my view, at least - is the central skill you need for business today. More important even, dare I say it, than learning to code.
(“Copy Copy Copy - how to do smarter marketing by using other people’s ideas” is published by Wiley, £29.99. See herdhq.com for more information.)