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Imitation: The Weakest Brand Strategy

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Imitation: The Weakest Brand Strategy

For some organizations the temptation to copy the value created by others is too hard to resist.

Amazon has been accused of creating a shoe “strikingly similar” to one designed by environmentally-friendly footwear manufacturer Allbirds. For those that don’t know, Allbirds makes sneakers out of wool. Celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Gwyneth Paltrow have been photographed wearing shoes made by the five-year-old bay area startup that pitches their shoes as “the world’s most comfortable.”

In retail, following consumer preferences and offering products that align to trends is how the industry works. And that’s how Amazon is responding to the allegations. “Offering products inspired by the trends to which customers are responding is a common practice across the retail industry,” a company spokesperson said in response to a GeekWire inquiry. “ (Amazon’s) 206 Collective’s wool blend sneakers don’t infringe on Allbirds’ design. This aesthetic isn’t limited to Allbirds, and similar products are also offered by several other brands.” Even WalMart was offering something similar that reviewers called “Wallbirds”.

“Please Steal Our Approach To Sustainability.” ~ Allbirds CEO Joey Zwillinger

While Amazon’s price point is about half what Allbirds charges, there are some significant differences that CEO Joey Zwillinger penned in an open letter to Jeff Bezos. While he said Allbirds was “flattered” by Amazon’s “strikingly similar” private label shoe, he again focused on manufacturing and materials and their greatest differentiator. “Please steal our approach to sustainability,” he wrote.

In the letter they go on to say, “As we’ve done with over 100 other brands who were interested in implementing our renewable materials into their products, including direct competitors, we want to give you the components that would make this shoe not just look like ours, but also match our approach to sustainability. In partnership with Braskem, we successfully created the world’s first green EVA – a sustainable version of the foam used on the bottoms of sneakers (including yours), and one of the industry’s most ubiquitous materials.”

Allbirds has committed to being a carbon neutral company across its whole supply chain, and even touts on their website ” for every ton of carbon we emit as a business, we’ll pay to take a ton of carbon out of the atmosphere.”

With interest in climate change growing among consumers, Allbirds was wise to seize on this opportunity to reinforce some of their biggest and meaningful differentiators: a planet-conscious supply chain and a willingness to share innovation with the industry. And the story couldn’t be better, a real David versus Goliath where an eco-friendly premium brand is going head-on with a global juggernaut. It’s no wonder the story has been picked up and amplified in the media the way it has.

The challenge will be for Allbirds to strategically go on the defensive, seize on this moment in time to do some epic brand building. Reminding potential customers that similar products might offer a cheaper way to get the same look, but do not offer the same purpose-derived benefits and meaning, and therefore are less authentic and less valuable.

Remember, copycat brands benefit from the trend alone having taken no part in the reasons behind the trend. At a time when people are looking for products with meaning, imitation products get the reputation they deserve as do the retailers behind them.

The best strategy is to create value that is clearly your own.

***Looking for a great holiday gift for co-workers or clients, send them the new branding book “FOLLOW the FEELING: Brand Building in a Noisy World” today, written by Branding Strategy Insider Kai D. Wright.

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