Innovate, Don't Imitate

Imagine you’re a popular, but not critically acclaimed, actor or actress sitting in the Dolby Theatre as Leonardo DiCaprio steps on stage and accepts his first Oscar.

Jealousy surges through your veins and you make a promise to yourself that you’ll do anything to stand on that stage next year.

The following day, you meet with your talent agent to build a game plan that will guarantee you a coveted golden statue. Their one and only recommendation? Get your drama school-trained ass attacked by a bear and in a freezing river as soon as possible.

It would be almost unthinkable for any agent worth her or his salt to suggest simply doing exactly what DiCaprio does in The Revenant and expecting the same reward. It is, therefore, surprising how many marketers appear to believe that copycatting the most successful campaigns will generate copycat results. It won’t.

Please, marketer, don’t be that agent.



Creativity in advertising isn’t about playing me-too marketing and building your own real-time team just to keep up with the Joneses. The value lies in understanding the emerging consumer behavior behind the success of a campaign, and finding innovative ways to activate on it.  Let me explain what I mean.

When Oreo took over Super Bowl XLVII with their “Dunk in the Dark” tweet during the power outage, brands fumed with envy. They watched from the sidelines as their outrageous TV ad spends were rendered irrelevant by a perfect real-time social message that reached the engaged audience organically.

This moment sparked a fire in brands and their marketing partners. Real-time became the place to be seen, and every brand used every major (and often minor) cultural event to make a play like Oreo’s. Safe to say, it doesn’t work like that. Sure, there have been successes. But the vast majority of these social messages fail, and worse, many are completely tone deaf and off brand-voice.

So why? We know there is still value in real-time social media. When it works, it really works.But what we need to realize as an industry is that value isn’t in imitation. We can’t make Dunk in the Dark happen again. Because it will never be Super Bowl XLVII again.

When the lights went out in the third quarter, the hundred million people watching the game no longer had something to watch on their first screen. Well, they did but it was just the TV broadcasters and NFL fumbling for solutions. The players they had tuned in to see had even left the field.

The social masses took to their second screens to see if anyone had answers as to why the biggest sporting event of the year was suddenly blacked out. They went on Twitter to sympathize with other fans, complain, make conspiracies, mock, joke, however they wanted to engage with others around this ridiculous cultural touchpoint. Oreo joined the conversation because brands are a part of the Super Bowl. It was the perfect marriage of cultural relevance and an event where we expect and embrace marketing.

Understanding critical behaviors around when and how consumers engage socially will unlock powerful real-time content. Trying to imitate Oreo by inserting your brand into cultural events where it isn’t wanted will not.  

Marketers have a tendency to imitate trendsetters with what I call check-the-box marketing. After Domino’s released an order by emoji technology, it was one-of-a-kind. But when a fast-food burger chain tries it, it might work, but it won’t be innovative. That’s following the trend.

But the burger chain can still get at the fundamental behavior, which, in this case, is people expressing themselves in one-tap and simplified formats. It’s still possible to design great experiences around that without being me-too.

Once marketers begin looking for emerging behaviors, they’ll likely start to find them everywhere. Recently, I was at a family event and had a laugh when my nephew, a toddler, approached a television and began trailing his fingers across the screen and poking it.

My first thought was, “What’s with this kid?” But then I recognized what was happening . . . He was treating the TV like the touchscreen devices he sees everyone else in the world using. He swiped, pushed and pinched, but nothing happened on the TV. A touchscreen TV that works like our phones could be the next innovation in tech. Was he just uselessly pawing at a screen...or was he pointing to the future? It’s the inspiration around us that will bring new innovations.

Winning new customers is not unlike winning an Oscar. It’s not about imitating a good performance, it’s about creating one all your own.

1 comment about "Innovate, Don't Imitate".
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  1. Bobby Calise from Warc, March 28, 2016 at 8:38 a.m.

    Great column, Pete. We talk a lot about this at Warc, where we have a database of best-in-class ad campaigns. The idea is not to copy another agency's great work and put your brand's name on it, but to draw inspiration from it and apply some of the concepts that worked to what you're working on--concepts like innovation, creative media executions, mining for insights in new ways, etc. "Good artists copy, great artists steal."

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