As a business, how circumspect should you be about posting online your brilliant discoveries, unique looks and ideas? Hatta Byng, the editor of House & Garden magazine, advises you keep your most stylish rooms or best finds to yourself to avoid them becoming: “less desirable and far too of the moment” – a veiled reference to the endemic problem of copying from posts on social sites. Instagram, in particular, provides a “picking pool” of ideas (often generated by small businesses) that designers at the big brands can use for inspiration or to plagarise. So should you share your brilliance only to have it copied and diminished, or limit your show-and-tell and shoot yourself in the foot?
This topic has come up because an entrepreneur I work with has been copied by a larger retailer. Checking websites reveals near-identical styles, colours, patterns and even photos taken in the same location with a similar-looking model in the same pose! Understandably, the entrepreneur is furious and her first call is to a lawyer. So before reflecting on the problem, what about the legal solution?
Her lawyer proposed sending a “cease and desist” letter, which is a normal and appropriate response. Unfortunately, it will be pretty useless because it’s like a warning shot and, as we know, these only work when the enemy believes you have the resources to go to all-out war, and she hasn’t. Her lawyer also said it could work because they’ll know they’ve been found out and they’ll then stop. Really? I’d be astonished if they suddenly now did the right thing given they willingly plagiarised her in the first place. I’m not convinced going down the legal route is a good use of her money, but not actually for these reasons, more because, this may surprise you, but she has a weak case.
Her case is weak because even though it looks crystal clear that she was copied, when challenged the defence employed will be that they were merely following trends and it is not illegal to follow trends and to do so is a feature of many markets, particularly fashion. The entrepreneur has no registered design nor a distinctive or unique identifier which has been unwittingly copied, so she’s no real case. Going legal wastes money and time and will achieve very little.
So, to post or not post when there is a high probability it’ll get copied? Firstly, throw away the notion that this problem is to do with social media because it is not, although social media is fueling the problem. Challenger brands use head-on competition as their marketing strategy and whilst confrontational, aggressive and perhaps not your thing, it is successful in many consumer markets (not just fashion retail) including coffee shops, sports shoes and mobile phones. Indeed, the UK betting shop group Paddy Power had a growth strategy in the 2000’s to locate directly opposite existing successful competitor-owned betting shops so they could beat them at their own game because Paddy Power was so confident in their offering they saw attracting the established customer base as a quick way to grow.
In these circumstances, the winner is the business whose product or service is perceived to be the best when put up against the category standard. So the entrepreneur needs to really understand what her brand stands for and then evidence her products are superior to the challenger against those parameters. I’d be looking in areas like sustainability, ethics, quality of product and production and the supply chain as today’s consumers value more than just a pretty dress and features can be built in that are unique and difficult to copy. Interestingly, she has identified her customers care about the environment so she’s honed in on using organic cotton because it produces around 46% less CO2e compared to conventional cotton giving her two ticks on her consumer’s wish lists – organic and better for the environment. As the large retailer will find it hard to make a wholesale change to organic cotton, this a good strategic move to improve customer acquisition and retention.
Another defence strategy is to bring some uniqueness into the design or manufacturing process. Looking at a very old example, Levi Strauss patented an “improvement in fastening pocket openings” and while it didn’t stop people making copies of jeans, it did make his jeans distinctive and covetable. Patents offer limited protection and are expensive, so as well as focusing on being distinctive, think about making it really difficult to copy your product. Again, this wisdom applies across most products and services. GlaxoSmithKline had a very successful antibiotic, Augmentin, which continued to enjoy market leadership and limited competition for many years after it went off-patent because it was extremely hard to make without combusting. It was only when competitors eventually worked out the secret of not blowing it up that Augmentin’s market position was challenged.
None of these arguments supports limiting your social media posts, so why is Hatta Byng suggesting this? Her logic is based around the idea that “exclusivity” is attractive and drives consumer demand, but this only works if you’ve already an audience who are prepared to pay up for that exclusivity. The top-end of interior design has this characteristic, but its very niche and most businesses need to market, so hiding your best work is intuitively wrong. However, Hatta has a point and it doesn’t need to be taken to the extreme to work. The key is to focus on brand loyalty. Post your brilliance on Instagram to lure people in and follow it up with privileged access to create loyalty: previews of new lines, in-store experiences, behind the scenes access, bespoke elements. By creating a tribe, brand recognition and positive brand associations you are making your product more resilient and making sure it is yours, the original version, that is most desired by consumers.
Being worried about being copied is very negative and I find the most successful businesses are those that proudly display their brilliance both online and off, but are clever and thoughtful about it. So I say post.