Imitative behavior: There’s nothing worse than mindless copying

Reylito A.H. Elbo

Reylito A.H. Elbo

ENGLISH writer Charles Caleb Colton (1780-1832) said that copying is the greatest form of flattery. This is why plagiarism checkers have become abundant. But that’s not the point. The point is: when people copy your work and business style, they also help you build your self-confidence. This doesn’t mean that you should not be angry. As a normal human being, you should be angry, at least for a moment. You shouldn’t prolong your anger and you must proceed in doing your best by being ahead of the pack.

Your confidence level should help you. Imagine entering a competition. The only thing that should matter is anticipating who’s going to place second or third. That’s an edge condition that sometimes makes you lose balance. It’s called over-confidence – that condition which makes you lose sight of that slim chance that you will be beaten in your own game. That’s real. So, how do you go about maintaining your confidence and consistent winning strategy, either in your career or business?

One of the first things to do is to make a product or service that is difficult to copy. Make yourself unique. Of course, this is easier said than done. If you think your ideas can be copied, then you should have started hundreds of kilometers ahead of the competition then change gears as you look for smart, different ways to make copying difficult for competitors.

Imitative behavior can take many forms in any situation. The best example is found in the local oil industry. When a company increases the price of its gasoline, diesel, kerosene, or LPG, the other players are expected to follow with the same scheme, merely offering negligible differences in centavo pricing. There’s not much competition, except in the limited offering of freebies like soft ice cream, soft-drinks, or coffee which are given away by affiliate companies, like what Petron and San Miguel are doing.

F.T. Knickerbocker in “Oligopolistic Reaction and Multinational Enterprise” (Harvard Business School Press, 1973) first spotted the relationship between foreign direct investment (FDI) and rivalry. If a firm raises prices, the others follow. If one expands its production capacity, its rivals follow suit lest they be left at a disadvantage.

In the Philippines, the imitative behavior of the oil industry is often seen as the work of a cartel that victimizes its consumers, at least according to militant organizations led by jeepney operators and drivers’ associations.

In recent months, imitative behavior is seen in the local convenience store industry. News reports show that players tend to imitate each other’s FDI with the introduction of Family Mart and Lawson fast-tracking its expansion even as it plays catch-up to first-mover 7-Eleven and second fiddle Mini Stop.

What makes industry players imitate each other? One plausible explanation is they want to ensure that a rival does not gain a commanding position in one market. If a firm is successful in one market, it can use its generated profit to subsidize a competitive attack in another foreign market.

Although Knickerbocker’s theory can help explain imitative FDI behavior by competing firms in an oligopolistic situation, it does not explain why firms decide to undertake FDI rather than do exports or enter into less-risky licensing agreements. We can only speculate that imitative behavior is being done as part of a company’s internationalization policy, which is the main reason why many organizations engage in FDI, probably in anticipation of the Asean regional economic integration in 2015.

Now, how do you see our local brands execute their internationalization policy? It’s easy to understand Jollibee making its mark, at least in countries where there are a great number of overseas Filipino workers or immigrants. If Jollibee demonstrates an imitative behavior with McDonald’s in mind, say in any country in the world, would it mean that the latter would be trembling in fear?

The obvious answer is an enthusiastic “no” by primary mascot Ronald McDonald. The problem with being a mascot in this situation, however, is that you have no way to know if he’s already in distress even if his face keeps on smiling happily.

As a disclosure, however, I like Jollibee because it is one of our regular patrons that attend my public management learning events. They know how to spend their money very well. And they’ve high standards for choosing us. But more than that, it knows how to meet the expectations of the Filipino taste.

We belong to the mutual admiration club. And no one can take it away from us.

Rey Elbo is a business consultant specializing on 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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