Startup marketing is a contact sport. If you make a good play, you can be sure your competitors will copy it. Just as you’ll be watching what they do and improving their best moves. Some companies are blatant about it — literally mimicking positioning, copying your messaging and writing style. We’ve even seen competitors reproduce websites down to the color palette.
This can be damn annoying.
If you are getting your messaging right — it’s gonna happen. Now what?
1. Don’t Panic
Every Hitchhiker’s Guide has the comforting words ‘Don’t Panic’ printed on the front. That’s good advice when a competitor copies your messaging. They want to get in your head, close the gap between you and put you off your stride. Every cycle you spend in angst and annoyance is one you don’t spend executing, while they do.
They’re doing it. It’s unfair. They won’t stop until it doesn’t work. Even if you ask nicely.
2. Could it actually be good?
You’ve been in lots of meetings brainstorming names for a potential category. It’s hard. And it requires others to use your terminology. Well, could this be it? If your competitor starts using the same words as yours to describe the category, that’s what you wanted. It’s validation that customers understand what it means — otherwise, they wouldn’t buy.
So, before you get concerned competitors are swimming in your blue ocean, perhaps this helps you. You can’t lead a category of one — you need others to put their marketing dollars behind it. Now they are joining your category — so great. If you can make it a two or three horse race — boom.
3. Execute, execute, execute
Your competitor copies your messaging. Prospects are confused. Some might choose their inferior product when you were here first. It’s on. The market isn’t perfect, and a good proposition is just one part of success.
Don’t second guess yourself too much. There’s a reason the imitation happened. Take it as the flattery it probably is — a signal you are on the right track, and in fact ahead. You might eventually need to adapt, but for now, stay ahead.
4. Prove it
You have a better product but your competitor is saying they too have a similar key feature. Except theirs doesn’t work as well as yours. It’s probably something fundamental like their architecture, which anyone with a deep understanding of the space should understand.
That’s good. But the fact is only a few people know what you do. They can’t see the difference — after all, that’s why your competitor is copying you! So widen the gap and prove it. Case studies, benchmarks, partnerships, exec hires from competitors, analyst reports, awards and funding are all methods to differentiate your proposition.
You want to ensure that when it comes to selection in a head-to-head, you have all your credentials laid out. Your competitor will have their go-to lynchpin customer (they always do) but you’ll counter with an array of proof points from third parties, by vertical.
5. Go broader
Now that you have opened a credibility gap in this core space, it’s time to reframe the market so they match you in only one area. It’s better to broaden out the category than to try to jump further ahead (deeper) into this one. Make them a niche player in this bigger space. So you are on-prem, cloud and edge, compared to their simple cloud play. Or you’ve added a whole extra collaboration/workflow element which reaches more stakeholders at the customer. You get the picture — they just overextended themselves to match you, which you deftly countered. Now, you’ve not just moved the goal posts, but made the field bigger.
This is going to be a little uncomfortable — you will probably need to share some of the development pipeline before you are truly ready. Otherwise, you are giving them too much time to leapfrog you. If you don’t, then you can bet they will, forcing you to play catch-up. The trick here is not to lose your credibility. Don’t claim something you can’t do or start marketing futures. But you might need to be a little aggressive on the timeline — so use your judgment. Each market moves at a different pace.
This isn’t a full marketing playbook, but at least it will help you rationalize next steps when a competitor copies your messaging. If you handle them well, keep your head (and your exec team’s), then you can use this to springboard ahead.
Morgan McLintic is the founder of Firebrand. With over 25 years’ experience in the tech sector, he advises clients about their marketing and PR strategy. Prior to Firebrand, he was the founder of digital communications agency, LEWIS in the US, growing it to 250 staff and $35m revenue.