Are you still innovating, or just imitating?

22 August 2022

In a world where the same product is released hundreds of times with different packaging, we have to ask, “is this still innovation?”

And in 2022, what does ‘innovation’ even mean?

The Cambridge dictionary definition is advantageously vague, being: “(the use of) a new idea or method.” Wide open to interpretation, it’s entirely possible to release the same product twice with marginal changes and call it innovative, and that’s exactly why the term has found itself in a negative light over the past few years.

For those of us who strive to make every product unique, innovating is far more complex than simply adding a few additional features to last year’s model and calling it a day—it’s about creating a world-first solution. Being an agency priding itself on innovation, our own standards are sky-high, as that’s what keeps the coffee machine running. But what about more junior agencies or those yet to find the confidence to challenge a client and build something unique?

Unfortunately, the word ‘innovation’ will still be just as vague at the end of the project as it was at the start for these businesses. Even the faintest measure of differentiation to a glass half full thinker means it’s time to break open the champagne, for innovation has been achieved. It’s a timeless strategy for enhancing a company’s reputation, but is it truthful?

Or is it just imitation?

On the other side of the fence, cynics and stoics alike are sat nursing their brandy wondering, “is this product actually new, or just a copy of something that already exists?” And to those people, we say, “no, but also yes.”

Take the work of our favourite tech giants like Google or Apple, for despite being considered innovative and trend-setting, they are often in a race to release the same core product but with slightly different elements, as explored by our Head of PR and Comms, Natalia Bocheńska, in her 2021 article. So, perhaps another question we should be asking is: have our standards of what makes something innovative changed?

This brings us neatly onto  ‘imitation innovation strategy’, a concept describing the process of taking the core elements of an idea and adding new features, or even changing the pre-existing ones just enough for them to be considered different. By dictionary definition, this technically is innovation. It’s not that simple though, is it? Thankfully, people are seldom bound by the confines of language, much to the chagrin of English teachers.

Because in the world of technology and, well, anything else involving production, what we consider innovative is in the eye of the beholder.

And because it’s so subjective, ‘innovation’ has plenty of critics.

Somo’s Product Director, Mark Enterline, knows all too well that the concepts of innovation and disruption, particularly when discussed in the context of the tech industry, are popular punching bags at the moment.

Mark goes on to state, ”Innovation has the ability to become disruptive in unproductive ways when the regulatory and market environments are unprepared to or cannot catch up, a scene that plays out regularly in the United States on Capitol Hill.”

Innovation is essential, of course, and always has been. “Businesses are like living organisms in many respects, and must balance wants against core needs and interact with their environment,” Mark explains.  And just like in the animal kingdom, if a business does not adapt, i.e innovate to ensure it continues to deliver value to its customers, it must migrate and identify new markets. Or perish.

A prime example of innovation through adaptation can be found in the energy sector with businesses such as E.ON Next now offering electric vehicle home charging points to its customers. Yes, others will imitate and provide identical services, but is that really such a bad thing in this particular context?

No, because imitation can be a good thing, and is 100% necessary for progression.

Good imitation can be just as critical to success as innovation, because it’s far more than simply mirroring and rebranding an idea or a product. It is essential for identifying opportunities where a solid idea can be executed better, more cheaply, or ideally, both.

Innovation and imitation are not mutually exclusive either, and are equally essential for raising the benchmark and our collective standards of excellence. After all, innovation without strategy rarely yields results, and not every idea needs to be a moonshot to be successful. Plus if there’s a risk of a customer going elsewhere to get what they want, you either imitate or you get left behind.

Take Monzo for example, a UK app-based challenger bank disrupting the scene with its all digital, lightning-fast customer control and functionalities. Major players including NatWest raced to catch up by implementing similar features, massively improving customer experiences as compared to pre-Monzo times. Specifically, NatWest now offers digital spending insights with their 'Digital Spending Tool’, a resource that might never have been available if not for positive imitation.

To conclude, then, yes—businesses are still innovating, and no, they don’t need to shatter the mould into a thousand pieces to be considered innovative. Besides, in a decade or so, an enterprising savant might come along and take our ideas to the next level, greatly enhancing the experience for thousands of users. If that’s to be the case, then let’s see it as innovation resulting from inspiration.

Sounds a lot better than “they copied me!” doesn’t it?