When Imitation is Not the Most Sincere Form of Flattery

It's getting so that I can't recognize the catalogs that are arriving in my mailbox. It's not because I've never heard of them before. It's because catalogers are copying each others creative styles, and brand images are becoming blurred and confused.

If I see one more apparel catalog that copies the same laydown style of apparel photography that Coldwater Creek developed, I'm going to scream. Copycat creative is not just irritating, it's really starting to make a dent in our business. Catalogs that directly pick up creative executions from other catalogers as soon as they see something new and exciting are undermining the effectiveness of all catalogs.

This strategy really flies in the face of the strong move we seem to have going towards branding and differentiation. Copying is a strategy born of tough times when we tend to be more risk averse. It's indicative of a business that is more interested in short-term gains over long-term investment. Knowing the sheer economics of cataloging, caution is understandable. But in the long run, copycat creative is a destructive force.

It works for the original catalog because it supports its positioning and it helps build a strong and focused brand. It also has the strength of having come out first, something that we know usually has a lasting effect on the consumer in terms of name recognition and awareness.

Copying a strong presentation will never achieve the same impact in the copied catalog. First of all, catalogers who copy usually don't have a clear picture of their own unique positioning.

We see copying all around us. As soon as the Domestication's business took off, we saw linen catalogs that looked exactly like them. When Coldwater Creek came out with a new, fresh, flowing look achieved by styling laydowns loosely, as if in movement, apparel catalogers started copying them. Since then, a variety of apparel catalogers have imitated that look for merchandising presentation.

The latest target seems to be The Territory Ahead. Bruce Willard created this unique catalog with an incredibly differentiated cover — a dramatic scene as opposed to the typical merchandise or model presentation. I was shocked to see a recent issue of L.L. Bean with the same execution on the front cover. I know that L.L. Bean is facing some very hard business challenges, but I wonder what they are hoping to accomplish by using such a duplicate of The Territory Ahead cover? Given their strong positioning with quality and service, as well as family outdoor life, I know they could have developed a stronger and more appropriate creative execution for their catalog cover — one that they could have owned.

This tactic of copying is terribly undermining to brand development. Creative design is one of the most effective tools we have to build a strongly branded image. If you're really doing your job right, key creative strategies should be thoughtfully developed so they reflect your unique positioning. It's hard to be unique when you're copying other catalogers.

Creative executions should be different from what else is out there. The approach of differentiation helps make your own catalog more bulletproof against others copying or duplicating your efforts. Copying a highly differentiated catalog will certainly result in eroding your own brand (and may possibly remind the recipient of the original catalog).

There are so many things that are wrong with the tactic of copying. It certainly shows a lack of creative excellence at the copying company. I wonder, why don't more catalogers challenge their creative staffs with new ideas? Are they giving them the resources? Are they sharing with their staffs an understanding of the elements of brand building? And most importantly, are they providing the time needed to develop smart creative strategies?

Catalogers need to have a little more courage when it comes to developing new creative. Too often, new or unique creative strategies are developed early in the game, only to be abandoned at the last minute in favor of a safe or proven execution. While copying may feel safer than moving forward with a new approach; in the long run it creates more problems than it solves.

Dynamic, meaningful creative is typically born in an environment where there is a strong vision that usually has its foundation in an understanding of the customer. Almost anyone can recognize a J. Crew, Lands' End, William's Sonoma or Lillian Vernon catalog, without looking at the logo. Each has creative that reflects their positioning and their audience. Each has created points of differentiation that are difficult to copy.

And although they are not as well known universally, smaller, younger companies can do the same thing. Rue de France, Black Dog, J. Jill and Priorities all stand out with excellent, differentiated creative.

Copying branded creative executions is bad for everyone in the long run. The copier may achieve a short-term boost, but eventually undermines its own brand image. Copycat executions are confusing to catalog buyers, who don't immediately recognize whose catalog they have in hand. They are certainly undermining to the copied catalog.

Real differentiation and strength can only be achieved through the identification of new and relevant creative that supports positioning. My advice, simple as it may seem, is summarized in a familiar phrase: No guts, no glory.

Glenda Shasho Jones is president/CEO of Shasho Jones Direct Inc., New York, a full-service catalog agency, which offers creative, production, merchandise, marketing, research and Internet services.

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