The Pitfalls of Copycat Marketing and How to Avoid Them

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Does your marketing look the same, or very similar, to the companies you’re trying to compete against? If this is the case, you could be guilty of copycat marketing, which leaves your customers swimming in a sea of sameness where it’s extremely difficult to make a buying decision.

Article 6 Minutes
The Pitfalls of Copycat Marketing and How to Avoid Them

By Simon Kelly, Stacey Danheiser & Paul Johnston

When researching our book, my co-authors and I conducted extensive research where we compared the websites and social media feeds of some of the largest organizations in industry sectors, from telecoms to higher education, conducted interviews with sales and marketing leaders whose experience spanned 119 companies and 54 industry sectors and launched a global online survey. The result? That organizations say the exact same things as their competitors.

However, having identified the sameness problem, the real challenge came when looking at how to break free from this.

Put yourself in the shoes of the customer

When avoiding the pitfalls of copycat marketing, we suggest starting where all good marketers should: in the shoes of their customers.

Imagine you’re a prospective customer for your company’s products. Like most B2B buyers, you’ve conducted extensive research online to figure out what your options are and you have a pretty good idea about what you want. Google refers to this as the “zero moment of truth” - the moment people research a product or service before buying something. Armed with this new intelligence, you’ve narrowed it down to a list of potential vendors, but you’re confused about which one will be the ‘answer’ to your situation and solve your problem.

You see, all the vendors are virtually promising to provide the exact same thing: innovative products, access to the most experienced people and customized solutions at an affordable price.   

How easy is it for a customer to choose you?

The problem facing most B2B companies is how to set themselves apart in ways that customers truly value. Buyers are confronted with an overwhelming amount of choice, which leads to ‘choice overload’. Behavioural economists refer to this as ‘overchoice’, when too many choices are available to consumers that it becomes impossible to decide. 

As Sheena Iyenger addresses in her TED Talk ‘How to make choosing easier’, while we like to be presented with a lot of options, too many choices lead us to become quickly overwhelmed when it comes to making a decision, which in turn, means we’re more likely to:

  • Delay making a choice, even if it’s in our best interest
  • Make poorer decisions
  • Choose things that make us less satisfied

Overchoice also has personal negative side effects, such as unhappiness, because we end up wasting time researching all our options and eventually giving up if we don’t see an obvious solution. Can you think of a buying decision you’ve deferred or not made a purchase due to overchoice?

The dangers of copycat marketing

In this world of overchoice, the issue of communicating the exact same story, ‘benefits’ and promises as everyone else in your industry, is that you end up putting all the responsibility on the customer to figure out what makes you different.

When every company sounds the same, customers are left utterly confused as to which solution will best meet their needs. They may just avoid deciding and stick with what they’ve got, choose the one with the lowest price, or worse, choose a solution that’s inadequate or ill-matched to their situation. We believe this is one of the main reasons why CSO Insights reports that over 50% of forecasted deals don’t close, and why only 56.9% of sales reps are meeting their quota (CSO Insight 2019).

So if you’re engaged in copycat marketing, you’re essentially making it even more difficult you’re your customers to choose and most likely leaving it up to price as the only differentiating factor. Worst of all, they’re likely to stick with what they’ve got, costing you lots of money bidding for work that ends in status quo.

Why does copycat marketing happen?

Here are the key factors that we have found most prolific in driving copycat marketing:

  • Expediency – Think about a company that’s recently been involved in an acquisition. They feel the need to get a website up and running quickly. To get the job done, they simply look at the websites of all the nearest competitors and put together a cut and paste composite version for their own company.
  • Laziness – sometimes the copying can be driven not by expediency, but by pure laziness. We spoke with a placement student who was told by the CEO of the company to “Put some crap on our website just like competitor X to say how green and ethical we are.” Of course, it’s much easier to make the claim, dishonest as it is, than to develop a truly green and ethical marketing programme or initiative.
  • Inside-out thinking – we found that often organizations focus too much on their own organization, rather than the customer. Too often value propositions are developed in internal meeting rooms without any customer research.
  • Recruiting from the same industry - in our research interviews, several leaders talked about the custom and practice of recruiting from the same industry. This can lead to people simply lifting and shifting ideas from their previous companies or selling in the same inside-out way they did in their previous job.
  • Lack of standout marketing competencies – do your teams have the competencies in leadership or marketing to break free from the sea of sameness? In the words of one Telecommunications company president:
If the leadership across sales and marketing don’t have the wherewithal to truly flesh out the differential storyboard, then the easiest default is to make sure that you’ve got at least a competitive parity message.


Overcoming copycat marketing: Dare to be different

We recognize that there’s a human urge to follow the crowd, or what Phillip Nattermancalls Strategic herding, which drives copycat behaviour. As one advertising agency CMO put it:

There’s a great deal of safety in copying your competitors…after all, who is going to argue with you message if your competitors are all saying the same thing?


However, here are the main things we recommend you get started with to avoid these common pitfalls and stand out from the crowd:

  • Customer and competitor research – always ask yourself “Do we have enough customer and competitor intelligence to be making decisions on how to differentiate effectively?”
  • Make time – recognize that effective differentiation is effortful. Step away from the daily grind to work through it.
  • Recruit from outside the industry – don’t just hire on industry experience; bring in people with the competencies to have new ideas and a different perspective on how things are done.
  • Develop new competencies – recognize what the competencies are that help you deliver stand-out marketing and invest in the people that can do it.

A January 2021 survey of 350 to marketers in US companies, found that over 72% of respondents said the role of marketing had increased in importance during the last year, which is perhaps not surprising given the COVID 19 pandemic. Customers have had to rely much more on company marketing channels to help make decisions, so having clearly differentiated offers that resonate with customers is more important than ever.

Now is the time to act, break from the sameness and reap the inevitable benefits.  

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Dr Simon Kelly, Stacey Danheiser, Dr Paul Johnston

Dr Simon Kelly is President of Shake Marketing, a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at Sheffield Business School, and Lecturer in Marketing and Sales at University of York.

Stacey Danheiser is CEO and founder of Shake Marketing. She is also CEO and Course Creator for Customer Value Link.

Dr Paul Johnston is a visiting lecturer at Nottingham Trent University, Sheffield Hallam University in the UK and the IESEG management school in Paris.

Together they are co-authors of the new book Stand-out Marketing, available to purchase from Kogan Page, Amazon and other book retailers, which delivers a framework to help organizations differentiate themselves in a ‘sea of sameness’ and deliver true value to customers.


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