Is Your Brand Headed for Extinction?

"Copycat branding" is becoming a bigger issue in the marketing industry. But originality is key to building loyalty

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Pointing out someone's obvious flaws can be cruel, like commenting on a giant, hairy nose wart. But if the blemish keeps growing, we start to wonder if the person isn't doing anything about it because they just don't realize it exists. So, we've decided to say something. In this case, the wart is "copycat branding" and it's a growing problem in the marketing industry.

Have you ever stood in the girls' shaving supplies aisle at CVS (CVS) or Walgreens (WAG) and squinted? If not, try it next time and you'll discover that the razor bags optically coagulate into an indiscernible blob of hot pink. Stroll the girl's shampoo aisle and you find the same phenomenon, only this time in a shade of jellybean green. For more copycat fun, scan the items in the feminine care aisle, from brands such as Playtex to Tampax. You'll notice that the undulating graphic waves on each brand's box seem to join together in a brand-spanning ocean the length of the shelf.

These visual tricks aren't limited to package goods; the phenomenon is even evident in flashier industries like junior denim. Famous brands such as Paris Blues and Mudd seem to have taken denim-matching vows and signed an industry-wide commitment to washed-out beige tags.

Adding to the trend, major retailers are now deliberately producing knockoffs of higher-end girl products. They copycat the product design and packaging, substitute in their own private-label logo and then give it the final price-slashing touché to snub the brands they are ripping off.


  The Internet has made the copycat wart more glaring. When a girl shops online, she can rigorously sniff out copycatting across retailers. Within seconds, a girl can locate competitive brands and neatly display them in an organized column on her laptop. If you look like your competition, the Web is able to make this glaringly obvious.

In the end, the brands look the same, the packages look the same, the products look the same, the racks look the same, the stores look the same, and the ads look the same. And—when it hits the fashion market—all of the girls look the same. It's as if one design agency were behind every product, and its job was to create a single design and "search and replace" the logo from brand to brand.

There are times when standardization in design are needed; like the icons on bathroom doors, or when tags that say "size two" actually mean size two. Such uniformity brings clarity to the confusion, and makes life a little smoother. But conformity doesn't apply to branding; in fact, it manufactures confusion. When brands and labels are not differentiated, shopping starts to suck. Here is why copy-catting is no good for us—or for your brand.


  In aisles filled with visual homogeneity, brands don't snag our attention. It is too hard to tell the difference between Pert and Prell unless we actually take the time to read the packaging. We don't want to cross-reference product benefits in the aisle. It's just not fun.

If you make us hunt for what makes you better, we might give up or miscalculate and buy the competition. To increase sales, give us some excitement. Design products that flag our attention and loudly declare their sassy assets. One polka-dotted bottle in a sea of jelly bean green can look like a miracle, pique our curiosity, and score the purchase.

Copycatting makes it impossible to fall (and stay) in love with your brand. For your brand to be valuable it has to represent something precious to us. How can we believe you are special when you do not look or act the part? It should not take a lot of effort to answer questions like "What does Olay mean?" or "How is Secret's formula different from its competition?"


  The lack of individuality makes it hard to remember, understand, or talk about brands. They lack the emotional appeal and intellectual trust needed to keep us loyal. On the flip side, individualistic branding makes shopping easier as products pop on the shelves, give us a reason to feel emotionally loyal, and make us feel smart about our choices.

When you look like the competition, choice gets reduced to the differences between Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee. At that point, the promise of "choice" depreciates and brands become commodities. Much like grains of rice in bag, these brands all taste the same.

And since there is hard evidence that girls love a deal, we'll probably go for the cheapest. When brands offer something to our lives that is valuable and important, however, we rarely let money get in the way. If our choice makes us feel good, we will pay extra. But when it doesn't, why spend the extra money?


  Being forgettable puts your brand on the path to extinction. If you don't stand out you are giving your competition opportunities to steal us away. Your competitors might be lower-cost private labels. When retailers see we don't have strong brand preferences, it encourages them to make their own label.

This is driving the success of stores like H&M and Forever21, where inexpensive fashion-right products are easy to find; these stores brought back variety and value. Copycat brands also face competition from newer, sexier brands setting the modern trends. Whether it's the low-priced H&M who fill our lives with choice or the higher-priced hot new kid on the shelf, whoever gives us solid reasons to be loyal will win our money.

In the end, brands with originality capture our attention, our loyalty, and our purchases. Want more girls? Then your focus must be on meeting our needs in unique ways and creating a visual brand language that communicates this differentiation. With a wink in your eye and a skip in your step, originality will be your blade to cut through the homogenous clutter and mow down your competition.

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