As you may know, I came to marketing copywriting via dramatic writing. But as an undergraduate drama major I dipped my toe into all aspects of the art form, from acting and directing to makeup design. I remember taking a costume history course in which the instructor talked about the difference between style and fashion. Style, she explained, was the bold new look that no one else had adopted yet, while fashion was what happened once a style was taken up by everybody. You could be stylish and set the trend, or you could be fashionable and ride the trend. Imitators might gain smiles of approval, but they weren't likely to create open mouths or raised eyebrows.
I've had marketing content meetings in which the client said something along the lines of, "I see my competitors doing this or that, so I'm thinking I need to do something similar." No. You need to do something different. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it's a lousy way to set yourself apart from the crowd. I've said it before and I'll say it again: When your marketing content is as good as everybody else's, that just means that it's no better than anybody else's. What's the point in having a unique value proposition if you blanket that UVP in generic content?
Following the crowd too closely not only causes you to blend in to an unnoticeable degree; in some cases it can actually set you back. A couple of reasons why:
You may end up promoting your competitor. Let's say it's the 1980s, and you're running a fast-food chain called Burgers R Us. Wendy's has just taken the country by storm with its ads featuring Clara Peller as a cranky old lady yelling, "Where's the beef?" Well, hey, you sell beef too, and surely you can find an old lady to help you catch some rays off the Wendy's halo. So what happens? Your target viewers say, "Hey, these spots remind me of the old lady in Wendy's ads. Remember her? Wasn't she funny? Hmm, now that I think of it, I could go for some Wendy's right now." Oops.
Your competitor may have it all wrong. Some of the biggest and brightest companies have made enormous marketing screw-ups over the years. (Remember New Coke? Neither do I.) By riding their coattails, you could end up on the fast track to disaster. The only difference is that your Fortune 500 competitor may have enough long-term brand value, and deep enough pockets, to outlive a catastrophic lapse in judgement. Do you?
So what does it all come down to? Originality. Instead of reacting to the current big thing, be the next big thing. Instead of aping someone else's unique ideas, initiate your own. If you need to engage that creativity by outsourcing a freelance copywriter, designer or other marketing professional, then make that investment. Emphasize your uniqueness -- and set the style instead of following the fashion.