What does that phrase usher thoughts of when you hear it? Copy cat? Swindle? Bamboozled?
Sure, I’m guessing all those things. And in the world today where we are so enamored by a certain flavor of the month gizmo or concept from electronics to restaurants, we don’t shy away from knockoff’s or straight on impersonators.
But…(you knew there had to be a ‘but’), when is something paying tribute to or recreating an idea to make their very own? It’s a thin line isn’t it? I started thinking about this after my friend Jim Sullivan from Sullivision.com was in my fair hamlet of NYC to give a seminar at the International Restaurant Show. Knowing I was a HUGE Beatles fan, he had made me a CD of covers the “Lads” had done at the start of their careers and songs by artists that influenced their music.
During the seminar Jim had made a note regarding taking ideas from a competing business and learn from the borrowed ideas of their successes without copying them. I paraphrase it here but that was the gist. I thought about the CD he had just given me and thought, “Well if these Fab Four can do it why not others? They seemed to do pretty well for themselves!”
But what they did do with songs by other artists was make them their own. They infused their distinct Beatles sound into the copied versions. Listen the original of “Rock & Roll Music” by Chuck Berry and then re-recorded by The Beatles. Almost the same length, key and feel. But the Lads from Liverpool added a raunchy rawness to it. They infused a war cry and growl that was not there in Berry’s version. They took a standard by Sophie Tucker, “Till There Was You” and turned it into a pop rock classic. All by infusing other musical styles inspired by Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly and Little Richard.
The Rolling Stones. Guilty of the same charges. Lady Gaga. Guilty as well. And sometimes even the biggest names get busted for it like George Harrison for a VERY blatant, umm, “tribute” to The Shirelles “He’s So Fine” and his song “My Sweet Lord”. In the case of The Monkees, they were a TV show/band that was created to cash in on the Fab Four formula but then went on to become one of the better pop bands on their own terms.
The point is sometimes greatness in business has to come from somewhere and inspired by someone else who had the courage to do and develop an idea. But IF it’s a direct “rip off” or impersonation of another successful venture without “making it their own” through modification, then more than likely it is doomed to fail.
A very successful restaurateur once said to me when I presented a proposal to him that would separate him from the rest of the pack as a visionary, looked me in the eyes and said, “Sullivan, I’m the great impersonator, not the great innovator!” Was he successful? Yes. Were his products original? No. Would people stand up and take note of him 50 years from now as to leaving his creative legacy on the industry? No. There would be no statues or songs sung about him.
What is it you want from your company and what will its legacy be if any? It’s alright to pay tribute to a competitor who has the shiny new toy but find the underlying current of what makes that toy so shiny and find a polish that will make it brighter so others take note of your shimmering toy.
Imitation can be the greatest form of flattery. But what will you remember more? The Beatles or the band that tried to sound like them?
Like Oasis, Tears For Fears, XTC, Electric Light Orchestra, Sly Fox, Michael Penn, The Rutles, Aimee Mann, this guy, that gal, John Smith, Joe Bag O’Doughnuts…
And so it goes…