Business Books

2 minute read
Andrea Sachs

A breakthrough product begets a me-too army of competitors. First there was Starbucks; now there is specialty coffee in every fast-food joint in the country. Evian and Perrier had the U.S. bottled-water field to themselves in the 1980s; now some 1,000 brands vie for an $11 billion market.

Innovate or imitate–what’s the best strategy? Harvard’s Youngme Moon and Ohio State’s Oded Shenkar come to diametrically opposite views in their lively new books.

In her poetic paean to originality, Moon rhapsodizes about innovative marketers such as Ikea, Red Bull, JetBlue, Swatch, Apple and Google. “These brands bask in our discontinuities and celebrate our complications,” she writes. “And in the process, they set a new standard of consumer insight, of customer focus, and of human understanding.” For a company to soar, she advocates a “commitment to differentiation” instead of an obsessive focus on the competition. To Moon, the race to imitate is an affront: “We live in a cultural context in which we are surrounded by brands that generate nothing more than a bothersome background hum.”

Baloney, says Shenkar in his blunt tribute to borrowing. He suggests aping the competition until the company lawyers start having heart palpitations. “Why are many imitators successful?” asks Shenkar. “With the innovator and pioneer paving the way (and paying for it), the imitator enjoys a free ride.”

Shenkar points out that the line between imitation and innovation isn’t as clear-cut as you might think. Sam Walton didn’t invent the discount store. Remember E.J. Korvette and Kmart? Walton nosed around established chains with a microcassette recorder and a notepad before starting Walmart and created a better version than the innovators’.

In Shenkar’s worldview, being such an “imovator” is no small distinction. “Imitation is a rare and complex strategic capability that must be carefully nurtured and properly deployed,” he writes.

Bottom line: true innovators thrive, but there is no shame in being an imitator–only in not doing it well.

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