Is copying good for business?



OF COURSE! Take the case of Toyota that copied Ford Motor that started out with an experimental 1908 Model Tso that it can be within reach of an average American consumer. How about Jollibee that patterned its business model with McDonald’s? And many other major brands here and abroad. The list can be endless.

If you think copying is a good start for entrepreneurs, you have to love retracing the history of Toyota, Jollibee and many others that succeeded with its doubling strategy. Now, the cyclical table has turned around as “Ford must copy Toyota, which copied Ford,” according to Mark Graban, a lean management consultant.

In the local front, Jollibee is now looking forward to its 1,000 restaurants in 2017, which is “double the store network of (its) closest competitor”—which I suspect is McDonald’s even its name was not mentioned in a one full-page print ad last Sunday.

In any case, this is plainly not an advice for would-be entrepreneurs to start copying hook, line, and sinker from the original. Rather, this is for everyone to understand how one can build something new out of the old, original brand.

For one, Toyota avoided the expensive and wasteful mass production system of Ford so that the former can build on its just-in-time strategy to eliminate non-value-adding activities. On the other hand Jollibee created its “langhap-sarap” (literally, smells delicious) to meet the Filipino taste of sweet-taste spaghetti, tasty hamburger, and crispy chicken laden with gravy rice.

Learning from the world’s greatest brands and demolishing some of its business practices is a hallmark of great leadership. The trick is to learn, unlearn, and relearn the basic principles. “Listen first, speak last,” said Peter Drucker (1909-2005), the guru of all management gurus. Drucker believed that the “listen first, speak last” maxim must be done if organizations give their knowledge workers more and more responsibility if they are to remain fully engaged and productive.

The message for every manager from all walks of life—there’s no harm in copying, but make sure that the result would be better than the original, or else, you’ll be in the shadow of an industry leader.

Perhaps copying is part of the appeal. And that’s how franchising flourished. If you have the money to invest in a business, it would be easy for you to start with a time-tested business formula. The trouble is that not everyone has the money to engage in franchising.

Then what can you do if you’re bent on starting out with a business? The first thing to do—you should stop having that sari-sari (small-time neighborhood convenience store), laundry shop, and hot pandesal mentality. Why not? Unless you can come out with a different approach, sooner than you can imagine, your business and all others similarly situated can go to waste because of destructive competition.

More than that, the moment you copy other business models, there’s only one thing that could happen—you’ll be several steps behind the industry leader.

Really, innovation is not a monopoly of established brands. It is equally appropriate for start-up business partners who are toiling away in their cluttered kitchen or garage, trying to perfect the next big thing that can change the world. It’s one great image that has long persisted in many successful business models.

Now what? What if Toyota starts building the ultimate smartphone so that it will not suffer the fate of Nokia that failed to reinvent itself? Or, what if Apple decides to build a car? Be careful, though. You may get what you wished for. Figuring out how to innovate, rather than emulate some brands by copying it may not be the right formula.

After all, strong brands may have strong weaknesses as well. For one, they’ve become so big, fat, slow, and bureaucratic that makes it difficult for them to act fast to serve customer’s needs. Unless employees work side-by-side with customers, even those with low-income needs, it would be difficult to capture accurately what the specific needs are.

Copying a business model can be likened to Christianity’s concept of Resurrection that has become so powerful, similar in intensity to a harsh winter followed by a fine-looking spring that can make everyone hopeful for the best.

Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing in human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback to or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter for his random management thoughts.


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