The Right Way To Steal Ideas

Taking inspiration from other companies can be done clumsily or gracefully. How to imitate as flattery, not forgery.

We’ve all heard the maxim "good artists copy; great artists steal," but few of us know the writer from whom we’ve stolen this thought. Its closest roots trace back to poet T.S. Eliot: "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal."

Fewer still have honored Eliot by stealing effectively. The truth is great marketers don’t aim to steal execution; they steal the strategy behind it.

Remember when Samsung went through that phase of packaging its tablets to look surprisingly similar to Apple (while following suit with their icons, USB cords, power adaptors and more)?

You can’t usurp a brand’s success if you don’t understand the strategy behind it.

Stealing effectively

If you want to borrow from a company you admire, start first by determining why it is you actually admire them.

I buy my jeans from a company called Bonobos. I could probably find an equally great pair of jeans by visiting a mall, trying on 10 or 15 pair, or I could email Bonobos, tell them I’m tall and have a hard time finding pants that reach my ankles, and ask them to recommend me the best pair of jeans.

In return, I’ll get an emailed recommendation along with the promise of free shipping and free returns by way of included shipping labels. And while I’m adding their suggestions to my online cart, I might also come across an April Fool’s joke or be encouraged to write their "ninjas" for a good chili recipe. These are things, to me, that no mall can compete with—and for that, they’ve earned my loyalty.

If I were a CMO who wanted to emulate Bonobos, I wouldn’t change my company’s name to sound like theirs and begin referring to my customer representatives as Samurai. Instead I’d start by ensuring my staff were trained well enough to make encouraging recommendations; removing the pain points from my sales and return processes; and creating the right content media to keep customers feeling welcome, informed, and entertained.

Stealing ethically

Still, stealing is stealing. Make a list of your favorite companies along with the real reasons you admire them—but stick to brands outside of your own domain.

If you manufacture tablet devices, don’t embarrass yourself by drawing inspiration from the closest tablet manufacturer. Instead, figure out why you prefer to order pizza from the place across town rather than the place by your office, why you’ll never again let that barber with all the piercings cut your hair, and why you still pay to see every single movie starring Harrison Ford, and draw your inspiration from there.

Matt Siegel is a freelance writer specializing in content marketing and branding; connect with him at www.MattSiegelMedia.com

[Image: Flickr user Amy]

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  • The quote from TS Eliot to which you refer is an adaptation of a much deeper statement which he made in his essay on Philip Massinger, collected in a volume entitled The Sacred Wood, which reads in full as follows:

    "One of the surest tests [of the superiority or inferiority of a poet] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest."

    If you’re now encouraged to discover more about TS Eliot and his works, do visit our website at <a href="http://www.eliotsociety.org.uk">The TS Eliot Society UK</a>, where there is a wealth of links (including to The Sacred Wood)