Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. However, don’t let imitation cross the line into plagiarism.

I once had a client suggest the agency perform “a little R&D” on his behalf with regards to his competitors. With a wink he followed: “You know, Ripoff and Duplicate.” Everyone in the meeting at the time chuckled a bit.
I knew my client was only halfway serious; there were certain elements of his competitors’ marketing he admired, but he most certainly did not intend for us to exactly copy them. Doing so would amount to plagiarism, and that’s universally frowned upon and at times illegal if it infringes on the intellectual property rights of the person or business being copied.

Plagiarism is no laughing matter. I recently discovered a digital marketing firm in my own backyard of Portland, Oregon has performed a little R&D of their own on the video I’ve had on my website’s homepage since July of 2012. My video is about a minute long and encapsulates my elevator pitch to prospective clients. It’s a specific proposal stating why hiring my firm and outsourcing your marketing to Rains | Birchard Marketing makes sound financial sense. While my positioning may not be entirely unique, my video is absolutely an original creation and a foundational element in my firm’s branding. It’s a sales tool I use when gaining new business, so it has significant value to me beyond the time it took to create. So, seeing this other agency’s video featuring close to 90% the same content that’s also a year younger, I realized I’ve been the victim of plagiarism. I’m now wondering what the potential impacts of this duplicate in the marketplace may have been over the past year. My recourse is to be determined, but suffice it to say I’m not flattered by this imitation.

Emulating a competitor’s tactics, design or strategy can indeed work. In fact, there is some basic truth to having a similar offering for the marketplace. Creating a product or service that is comparable to those in your competitive set can give your prospective customers choice and a place to start making their buying decision. You as the marketer then can define the features, advantages and benefits of your offering compared to your competitors. You can compete on your own merits. After all, in a free economy competition is what drives innovation.

But, if you go down the path of R&D and choose to exactly copy what your competitors are doing, you no longer are competing on the merits of your product or service. You’re simply regurgitating that which your competitor has already created. You’re at best a “me too” option. At worst you may face legal action that costs you time, money, brand equity and ultimately respect. As tempting as it may be to copy your competitors, please avoid plagiarizing another’s work. It’s basically an admission of your jealously of them; seriously instructing your marketing partner to copy one of your competitor’s work should be offensive to them. Besides, if you’re working with a good marketing agency, they’ll be able to develop a creative way to differentiate you from your competitors.