The copycat dilemma: sit in or stand out?

Short read

There are two types of copycat brands: plagiarists (those who willingly copy others) and conformists (those that end up mimicking, often by default).


Very few businesses set out to actively rip off a competitor, but it’s very easy to spot a sea of conformists in almost every sector – brands that sail a little too close to their rivals. And whereas plagiarist brands hurt others, in the long run conformist brands inevitably harm their own businesses.

I’m constantly surprised at the number of companies that don’t consider it absolutely essential that their brand stands out from competitors. Somewhere deep in the business psyche there appears to be an accepted truth that creating branding within the category convention – actively seeking to mimic what’s gone before – isn’t just satisfactory, it’s actually desirable.

Unfortunately, your customers don’t see it like that.


Difference creates recall – and recall matters. Customers have high thresholds for the weird, wonderful and challenging, even when it comes to something as supposedly sensitive as personal finances. For anyone doubting this, I have one word – meerkat.

As long as your product or service stands up to scrutiny, it doesn’t matter that you have a strange name (Häagen-Dazs), use a hot coral colour (Monzo) or own a flying unicorn (Asana). These points of difference are the things that people remember about the brands they love – even if no one can actually spell the ice cream brand’s name.

The urge to conform is immediately visible across established industries like corporate finance, where institutions favour a sober approach. For decades, dark blue has been seen as the safe, default colour.


This is also evident in emerging sectors. Take rapid grocery delivery. In isolation, Gopuff, Getir and Zapp have snappy names and vibrant, energetic branding. But to consumers, it’s tough to differentiate between them, or understand who’s top dog (or Gorilla). They all feel like Deliveroo‘s younger siblings. I can’t remember which adverts are from which brands. It’s as if they all decided that memorability was secondary to making their brand ‘feel a bit Deliveroo’.

Why didn’t one of them choose to build a brand based around a fictional bicycle delivery boy with a strange British name – Norbert’s anyone? Why not lean on the brilliant puns of UK convenience stores as a starting point (News&Booze, Morrisinghs, etc)? How about playing on the idea of teleportation to get groceries to you? Or accept that downright laziness is a factor and play with that as a concept?


Making the bold step to break away from the pack is one of the most critical decisions that any brand owner can take. It can be difficult to justify and gain buy-in from internal stakeholders. But developing a brand that looks, talks and acts differently isn’t simply and aesthetic choice, it’s fundamental to the success of any organisation.