We’ve all heard the maxim “good artists copy; great artists steal,” but few of us know the writer from whom we’ve stolen this thought. Its closest roots trace not back to Pablo Picasso, Steve Jobs, or your pilfering uncle—but to poet T.S. Eliot: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.”
Fewer still have honored Eliot by stealing effectively. The truth is the best marketing execs don’t aim to steal execution; they steal the strategy behind it.
It was very cute and all when Samsung went through that phase of packaging its tablets to look surprisingly similar to those of Apple (while following suit with their icons, USB cords, power adaptors and more), though I couldn’t help but equate this with every episode of Breaking Bad wherein someone tried to copy Walter White’s recipe for cooking methamphetamine without understanding the science behind it.
What was Samsung going to do when they got a bad barrel of precursor?
How’d they expect to produce an enantiomerically pure batch if they couldn’t tell whether catalytic hydrogenation was protic or aprotic?
What if they forget to add the aluminum?
You can’t usurp a television high-school-teacher-turned-meth-cook, it turns out, if you don’t understand the science behind his synthesis; and you can’t usurp a brand’s marketing success if you don’t understand the strategy behind it. Don’t believe me? Go watch the scene with the box cutter (season four, episode one).
If you want to borrow from a company you admire, start first by determining why it is you actually admire them.
I buy my jeans from a company called Bonobos. Why? They make great jeans. But to be honest, they also make some jeans I haven’t been too crazy about—just like every other clothing manufacturer. The difference being that Bonobos has figured out how to add value to my experience by making shopping easy and entertaining.
Now I could probably find an equally great pair of jeans by visiting a mall, trying on ten or fifteen pair, and gesturing awkwardly before narrow mirrors—or I could email Bonobos, tell them I’m tall and gangly and have a hard time finding pants that reach my ankles, and ask them to recommend me the proper jean. In return, I’ll get an emailed recommendation from someone with the title of “Ninja” (the perpetual eighth-grader in me is easily peddled to) along with the promise of free shipping and free returns by way of included shipping labels. And while I’m adding their suggestions to my online cart, I might also come across an epic April Fool’s joke or be encouraged to write their Ninjas for a good chili recipe. These are things, to me, that no mall can compete with—and for that, they’ve earned my loyalty.
If I were a CMO wanting to emulate Bonobos, then, I wouldn’t change my company’s name to Ponobos and begin referring to my customer representatives as Samurai. I’d start by ensuring my staff were trained well enough to make encouraging recommendations; removing the pain points from my sales and return processes; and creating the right content marketing campaigns to keep customers feeling welcome, informed, and entertained.
And then I’d follow up by running the rest of my most-admired brands through the same process.
Still, stealing is stealing. Make a list of your favorite companies (and, if you’re so inspired, your favorite television protagonists) along with the real reasons you admire them—but stick to brands outside of your own domain.
If you manufacture tablet devices, don’t embarrass yourself by drawing inspiration from the closest tablet manufacturer. Instead, figure out why you prefer to order pizza from the place down the street rather than the place by your office, why you’ll never again let that barber with all the piercings cut your hair (you know who you are), and why you still pay to see every single movie starring Harrison Ford . . . and draw your content marketing and copywriting inspiration from there.
Custom graphics courtesy of Andy DiGuiseppi.
*Fast Company published an abbreviated version of this post (sans Breaking Bad them) here: The Right Way to Steal Ideas.