“It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation.” Herman Melville
Commercial businesses implement competitive benchmarking exercises in a bid to measure business performance vis-à-vis market competitors. This practice usually defines a set of metrics as the evaluation criterion and seeks to make comparisons. Brands are also sometimes fond of referring to competitive strategy that has proven successful. The danger is when this goes beyond benchmarking and turns, almost unnoticed, into imitating that strategy. This is dangerous because what works in one organization, will almost certainly, not work in another. The situations and circumstances of each organization are different and, most importantly, their essence and core values are completely different. We have said often how we believe that the branding, and indeed organizational, strategies would be much more relevant if they are built on the inherent positive valence.
Let’s take a look at some instances wherein an excessive focus on imitating competition failed.
- Vanilla Coke
Vanilla ice cream remains a favorite inter-generational choice of frozen dessert for millions of Indian consumers. The trend persists and this flavor holds its own even in the highly diversified desserts market in India where major brands bring new flavors and formats every year. Coca-Cola worked on a vanilla flavor for its mass-market products and launched Vanilla Coke. However, the project floundered and the product was withdrawn from the market. Consumers did not know quite what to make of the product. The vanilla flavored drink tried hard to be both a much-loved cola, and an equally much-loved ice-cream but ended up being a wannabe ice-cream float. The Indian consumer did not seem amenable to choosing a pale imitation when any number of originals were available.
- Maruti Versa
Maruti Suzuki’s launch of the Versa, a family van, promised much but stopped short when it mattered. The product sought to extend the bloodline of the Maruti Omni van by encroaching into the territory of a true international icon, the Volkswagen Type 2 (or the Transporter). The product was visibly larger than the Omni and, in a nod to the perceived aspirational value, was priced at close to the sedans of the day.
The boxy shape of the Versa and a high (perceived) price point failed to meet the expectations of consumers. The lines of the vehicle were less than perfect and this added to the negative market reaction. Maruti’s rivals were offering impressive vehicle designs and wider options to consumers at similar price points. This ‘multi-purpose vehicle’, which was not quite a VW, rapidly lost ground in the Indian market.
- Blackberry Storm
Blackberry was a major consumer telecommunications hardware manufacturer in the first decade of this century. Research in Motion, the firm that made the Blackberry devices, was famous for its high-quality consumer products and its failsafe software security protocols. Following the launch of the Apple iPhone in 2007, Blackberry attempted to launch the Blackberry Storm as a phone that was just as smart. However, as InfoWeek opined, “BlackBerry’s inability to react effectively to market changes, specifically the first iPhone and AT&T’s deal with Apple, doomed the famed smartphone maker.” Imperfect software and other developmental flaws showed up starkly when compared to Apple’s challenger. Blackberry’s famed market share eroded, and sales declined as the markets and customers eagerly switched to Apple’s first iPhone device. Clearly, Blackberry’s defensive play against Apple had failed and this proved to be a harbinger for the Canadian device maker’s eventual downfall.
- Maggi Dal Atta Noodles
Maggi is THE staple brand in the Indian market for instant noodles. The brand’s range of products has generally been well-received, but the Dal Atta variant failed in the Indian market. Nestlé, the manufacturer of Maggi noodles, wanted to offer a ‘healthy’ quick snack to try and cash into a visible shift in the Indian consumers’ mindset to healthy snacking options. This presented a perception challenge for the brand as well as the Indian consumer. A brand that had more or less created the product category of fun foods that were meant for instant consumption, not deep reflection, was now trying to associate itself with a movement driven by good sense and reason. Perhaps not surprisingly, the product failed the taste test with the Indian consumers and registered very low uptake in major Indian cities.
- TATA Nano
The Nano envisioned as an uber-affordable small car, targeted the Indian middle-class buyers. TATA designed the project to take on Maruti Suzuki’s domination in the large-volume, small car segment in a huge market like India. While driven by an extremely high innovation element, the product seemed to want to be everything that Maruti’s iconic 800 was, except smaller and cheaper. Tata Motor’s seemed to be targeting a seemingly vast Indian middle-class that may have aspired to buy the Maruti 800 but could not afford it. However, the Nano failed the expectations of the targeted consumer segment. Its engine proved less than optimized to client expectations, and the vehicle acquired an unfortunate image of being unsafe on Indian roads. In addition, the “cheap car” stigma and the less-than-inspired visual styling of the TATA Nano seriously damaged the market prospects of the automobile. In a very real sense, the Nano was always less than what it tried to be.
The above chronicles narrate a tale of Entropy arising from being swept up in the chaos of the marketplace and excessively referencing competitors. In the end, it’s always better to believe in your Positive Valence- what makes you, your company, and your brand unique. For sure there will be less competition while doing that!
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