Ubaid Zargar

Brand imitation: Flattery, or a ploy?

Dabur, Thums Up, & Patanjali are all doing it. But here’s why, and here’s how.

Have you observed a trend where products from various brands bear an uncanny resemblance to their established counterparts? There are one too many examples of this, which are casting a shadow over the unique identity and individuality that brands strive to cultivate.

One notable instance is the introduction of a revamped Thums Up Charged, a beverage strikingly reminiscent of Pepsico's Sting. The parallels extend beyond the effervescence within the bottles, as the packaging, colour scheme, and even the communication strategy bear an unmistakable semblance. It raises questions not only about the allure of emulation but also about the impact on consumer choice in the market.

Dabur, a venerable brand in its own right, recently ventured into a parallel trajectory with its Cooling Oil product, drawing comparisons with the established Navratna Tel. The coherence in the colour combination, overall packaging aesthetic, and even the nuanced details of marketing communication leave one pondering the boundaries of inspiration versus imitation. 

This trend reverberates further with Dabur's Tasty Masala, a product that seems to have stepped out of the shadows of Maggi's Magic Masala. The visual symmetry is staggering, prompting a contemplation of the fine line between flattery and mimicry. 

Patanjali too, has found success in emulating many popular products that exist in the market from Atta noodles, to Honey, to Chawanprash

The ramifications of this trend extend beyond mere aesthetics, delving into the pools of consumer psychology and market dynamics. Does the market, already inundated with an array of choices, benefit from this apparent replication of products, or does it stifle innovation and diversity?

KV Sridhar (Pops), global chief creative officer, Nihilent Limited & Hypercollective, says that such efforts of brand-jacking are the cornerstone of me-too brands stemming from insecurities. 

He says, “Most of these me-too brands come from old-school businesses, who often go after already successful products or brands. The aim is to ride on their popularity while raking in some of their successes.”

The psyche behind this, he says, is to grab some of the market share of these brands by finding inadequacies in their marketing strategy or business footprint. 

Manish Porwar, managing director, Alchemist Marketing & Talent Solutions, views brand-jacking as an inevitable consequence of a competitive market landscape. "When a player's market share flourishes on the wings of a popular product, other brands are quick to step in, seeking to salvage their own portion of the burgeoning market," he explains.

The striking resemblance in branding strategies, Porwar suggests, is a natural byproduct of the growth trajectory. “As long as the market for a particular product continues to expand, brands appear content to follow the success formula of their counterparts,” he says.

However, Porwar notes that as the market reaches saturation, the brands undergo a transformative phase, compelled to distinguish themselves from the sea of similarities.

Originality, though a desirable trait, becomes a necessity only when it propels business or elevates brand popularity.
Manish Porwar, managing director, Alchemist Marketing & Talent Solutions

But doesn’t that affect the challenger brand’s overall appeal in terms of originality and authenticity?

Porwar answers, "Originality, though a desirable trait, becomes a necessity only when it propels business or elevates brand popularity.” He draws attention to the pragmatic aspect of the businesses, where brands may opt to recreate a product from other players who faltered in marketing. Here, the resurgence is facilitated by a revamped marketing and distribution strategy, breathing new life into a once-overlooked commodity.

Addressing the legal nuances of this trend, Porwar emphasises that unless a product is protected by a patent, the risk of copyright infringement remains minimal. "This paves the way for a market environment where emulation becomes a strategic manoeuvre rather than a legal transgression."

Consumers, enamoured by a product, may refrain from purchasing it solely due to the selling brand. In such instances, when their preferred brand introduces a strikingly similar product, loyalty prevails, and the consumer opts for the familiar.

Chandramouli Nilakantan, CEO of TRA Research, is of the opinion that most of these brand-jacking cases come from categories dominated by a singular entity, making the categories ripe for new entrants, often leading up to imitation.

He says, "In numerous categories, we often witness a scenario where a single brand stands as the indisputable leader with no formidable competition. However, what makes these categories ripe for disruption is that the formulation, the essence of the product, is not necessarily unique. Take, for example, Lal Tel, a standout product from Emami. Dabur's entry into this category was relatively straightforward due to the subdued popularity of Emami as a brand.”

The key lies in identifying categories where penetration is high, and a well-placed product can effortlessly tap into existing demand.
Chandramouli Nilakantan, CEO of TRA Research

In such cases, entering the monopolistic category becomes almost opportunistic, offering brands a chance to carve a space for themselves. “The key lies in identifying categories where penetration is high, and a well-placed product can effortlessly tap into existing demand."

While imitation has long been hailed as the sincerest form of flattery, the contemporary consumer, armed with discernment and sophistication, may question the creativity of brands engaged in this curious dance of mimicry. So to enter a market of a particular product requires a formidable strategy. 

Nilakantan explains, "The crux of the success of such products lies more in the domain of distribution than in advertising and creativity. In reality, if your product can secure a reach comparable to that of the market leader, penetrating the same consumer pockets, you're likely to witness a substantial 20% uptake in sales. In essence, the main marketing strategy centres around ensuring that your product is as accessible as the leading competitor's, if not more so."

Shivaji Dasgupta, founder and managing director, INEXGRO Brand Advisory, points out that the go-to trick for the emulators is to replicate most elements of the marketing mix of the original product. “From proximity in shelf presence in modern trade to similar-looking communication, the game is to generate quick revenue while higher order values do not matter. But this generally ends up as a short-term strategy.”

As the consumer sifts through the doppelgangers, the challenge for brands lies in striking a balance between familiarity and innovation, ensuring that the consumer is offered not just a product, but an experience that is genuinely distinctive. To do that, the brand proposition has to persuade consumers away from the dominant player. 

As per Amar Wadhwa, founder and executive director, CrystalEyes, the task for the challenger brand is to compete for value-for-value. 

He says, “For a challenger brand to become successful, it needs to value-engineer a new narrative. Sometimes it may need to talk to a more focused set of target consumers with an enhanced value proposition and start to build its connection with them.”

Where most challenger brands fail, he says, is when they try to use pricing as the only lever to ‘buy’ market share. “This, more often than not, backfires.”

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