Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Right Product in a Copycat World

So have a ruling that Samsung copied Apple. And yet, if you went to your local wireless store today, there are still Samsung phones for sale. But even if there is an injunction, you'll still see a market for what are, essentially, iPhone knock-offs. Is this whole thing just another example of billionaire on billionaire crime? Should you care?

It's similar to when somebody comes back from a trip to China and says, "look at this amazing copy of an iPhone accessory that I found for less than a dollar." Typically, it only takes a couple of days for them to be reminded of the difference between their knock off and a full priced version. Caveat emptor, right?

Me, I try not to subsidize copycats. I always feel a twinge of disappointment when people talk about buying fake Rolex watches or other brand-based knock-offs. I mean, think about it -- here is something, a brand, that the buyer applies some level of value to. And yet, they would spend money on a copy, a mimic. It's like a discount against their own values. It's basically saying that the brand doesn't bring some sort of tangible, value add in terms of function or form -- they simply want the cosmetic benefit of being associated to that brand. It would be like me walking around with a cardboard cut-out of a supermodel and telling people that she is my mistress. Or, accounting for variations in quality and a really good knock-off, perhaps a celebrity impersonator. 

Seriously though. Imagine if someone made an exceptional watch with the quality of a Rolex at a fraction of the price, but it was called 'knock-off-ex' and it wasn't a copy? How many people do you think would jump at the chance to buy one in the back alleys and the night markets? There's an ironic twist in there somewhere.

The Hidden Cost of Creating Your Own Copycats
Some premium brands actually undercut their own value when they make their own knock-offs. Whether it's those low-cost, consumer-grade product lines or the products that they make specifically for their outlet stores, when premium brands dilute their line, they also dilute the real weight of their influence in selling the value proposition.

Remember in the months before Apple launched the iPad? At that time, all of the PC manufacturers were selling netbooks, those sub-$500 notebooks that could sort of run Windows. Everyone kept saying to Apple, "your products are too expensive, you'll never compete with netbooks. When are you going to offer a netbook?" Apple and Steve Jobs kept saying, "no, the netbook is a stupid idea -- it's a sucky product with no margin." And when they introduced the iPad, the initial reviews were basically, "it's not a netbook. It doesn't have any of the ports or expandability of a notebook. This thing sucks."

But what Apple essentially said with it's product line was, "when you're looking for something that does what a computer does, then you need this, this and this. We're not designing a luxury product, we're designing 'The Right' product."

The iPad is not differentiated on quality -- a low end computer with a cheap processor and low-end components -- it's a mobile device designed specifically for what it does. Features like integrated accelerometers are not something that you would find on a netbook or a notebook, but they were essential to making the iPhone and iPad successful as a gaming platform. Apple maintains a harmonious message about what you need because your experience with it tells you that the iPad is something completely different.

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