Does 'copying' trump innovation as a design strategy?

Innovation has been the hot business buzzword in recent years--but could the act of lawfully "copying" other companies' ideas be just as, or more successful than, creating original products?
Written by Reena Jana, Contributor

Google wasn't the first search engine; Apple wasn't the first smartphone maker; Facebook wasn't the first social-networking site. All of these world-beating companies are known for their winning philosophies of simple design, and they're also admired for their sheer financial worth. And now some business thought leaders are suggesting that copying, or at least building upon, the concepts of other companies or inventors might just be the smartest path to success--even as important as true "innovation."

So is the focus of the Schumpeter column in the May 12-18 print issue of The Economist. Titled "Pretty profitable parrots," the essay looks at the provocative idea of corporations "celebrating imitation," rather than pushing for purely original concepts. Here's some of the relatively recent research in this area, featured in the column:

  • Oded Shenkar, a management professor at Ohio State University and author of the 2010 book Copycats: How Smart Companies Use Imitation to Gain a Strategic Edge, has found that the speed of legal copying has risen in recent years. In his research, Shenkar has found that "studies show that imitators do at least as well and often better from any new product than innovators do."
  • A 2006 study by Peter Golder and Gerard Tellis, "Pioneer Advantage: Marketing Logic or Marketing Legend," discovered that product innovators accounted for only 7% of their market over time.
  • Lex Wexner, the owner of lingerie chain Victoria's Secret and the Limited Brands clothing-retail group, spends one month a year traveling the globe looking for design and other concepts from other industries as "lawful inspiration" for his businesses.
  • Jean-Paul Gaillard, former head of Nespresso, a company that makes coffee-making systems that is owned by Nestle, has a new venture that makes coffee-pods that fit Nespresso machines but are not manufactured by Nestle. Thus, his new business takes advantage of the design that Gaillard once oversaw, but now he competes with Nestle. The Swiss food conglomerate can't seem to legally stop Gaillard, The Economist reports.
  • Copying can be a legal land mine, even for corporate giants. Apple is currently suing Samsung for allegedly copying elements of its iPhone and iPad in the Galaxy smartphone and tablet. And this month, a jury concluded that Google infringed on Oracle copyrights.

While the Economist column lists a number of examples of "copycats" versus "innovators"--from historical examples such as McDonald's, which essentially mimicked the idea of the White Castle hamburger chain--the author never really acknowledges that artful "copying" is a form of innovation itself. The two are not mutually exclusive. One just has to ask, are these examples really rip-offs, or do they merely riff off of a bigger idea that another company may have come to market with first...and improve on it? If we look at the marketplace or the stock market for evidence of success, we can't argue with the popularity of Google, Apple, and Facebook--all arguably "copycats" to some degree. But all three are widely perceived of as innovators for their artful re-designs of their predecessors' products and services.

Image: MJ/TR/Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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