Why Copying is Good for Creativity and Innovation

In Copy, Copy, Copy, Mark Earls argue that creativity in marketing (or anywhere else) is essentially about following the success of the theory of evolution outlined by Charles Darwin. Although the title of the book focuses on the copying part, the truth is that his central argument is that the essence of progress is “loose” copying, following the are of an idea but introducing variations into it. As Darwin demonstrates, if you do this enough times then eventually what emerges is superior to what came before. So if you´re trying to better your inner-self, then visit to see how you could change your life.

The beauty of the book, which I highly recommend, is that in arguing the case for copying as a creative strategy, Mark Earls also manages to integrate a lot of behavioural thinking into the strategies and approaches he outlines and gets away from the arguments about which marketing strategies work best. He argues that the first question to ask is “What kind of thing is this?” and from that then find an appropriate strategy to address the specific challenge.

Copying is not bad

As he shows clearly, any of the great “innovations” came from copying, even Professional SEO Services accept that, but not in the formal sense of doing exactly the same thing as somebody else. Rather from taking an idea in one domain and translating it into another. Or as he says, why reinvent the wheel when someone has already solved a similar problem? His argument reminds me of the emphasis that cognitive psychologists and semioticians place on “conceptual blending” or “intertextuality” (using their language). To the rest of us, the argument is that innovation is all about blending (“connecting ideas” as Steve Jobs put it). It’s not about inventing new things that never existed before, but about combining things in new ways. And we are entirely suited to do this, with brains that are fuelled by analogy and metaphor, which in themselves are just ways of combining and recategorising ideas that were previously distinct.

As Mark Earl argues:

  • copying is a great hack
  • it’s not difficult to do
  • it means that you don’t have to think anew every time
  • it means that you don’t see problems in isolation
  • and it makes progress much quicker

“Great artists steal” in the words of Pablo Picasso, but of course if you are like Picasso you steal and then make an idea into something completely new and unique to you. He includes examples from Elvis Presley (including his ‘distinctive’ sound and pelvic thrust), James Cameron’s Avatar, Star Wars reliance on Joseph Campbell to show how copying can help make great creative leaps. And as he points out in another example, we are hardwired to copy in the way that social learning and mirror neutrons operate even in new-born babies.

Make better copies

The idea of evolution is key to the use of copying to innovate and improve, and memes exhibit this behaviour frequently. Mark Earls uses the example of the “Keep calm” meme to show how ideas evolve in very much the same way that lifeforms evolve. The meme dates back to a British government campaign in 1939 as they waited for mass bombing to begin. around 60 years later someone found the poster in a consignment of used books and put it in a frame to hang in their shop. After many requests, they began to print copies for sale, using the well known Tudor crown and sans typeface, and then it started appearing on posters, cards, mugs and t-shirts as it gradually spread. Variants started to appear, some good and some not so good, but as with evolution the good ones have lasted.

Making deliberate errors in a copy is often a good thing (think of Chinese whispers or Andy Warhol’s paintings of famous icons), leading to new ideas and directions that you could not foresee from where you started. One of the most famous examples of copying in the history of innovation including George de Mestral’s copying of burdock burrs to create Velcro.

As Mark Earls says, when you have a problem to solve one of the best questions to ask yourself is “what kind of thing is this?”. Focusing on other already solved problems with similar traits can lead much more quickly to ideas than focusing on the specific and unique characteristics of the problem in front of you.

Visual thinking

Lateral thinking and making connections can be aided by drawing as well as thinking (Mark Earls says that “drawing is thinking”). Much more of the brain is devoted to processing visual information than verbal information, and picturing really helps you to see things which you would never think of (as Tony Buzan and Dan Roam also argue). The examples in the book include Robert Louis Stevenson and J.R. Tolkien’s inspiration from maps of the places in they imagination as well as John Snow’s map of cholera cases in London and Florence Nightingales infographics of army mortalities.

He introduces a tool for thinking about “what kind of problem is this?”, by looking at the degree to which a choice is shaped by independent (or social) decision making and to which a choice is informed (or uninformed). The quadrants defined by these two dimensions define four different choice styles: considered choice (informed and independent), guesswork (uninformed and independent), copying experts (informed and social) or copying peers (uninformed and social).

For considered choices, the thing itself is very important (i.e. music, technology and other high involvement categories). For guesswork, there are usually a large number of equally acceptable items, and this is therefore the area where habit is important and also where mental salience plays a larger role (being “top of mind”). For copying experts, authority and expertise become important, very typical of high-end technology categories and those which are niche. For copying peers, the impression of what others are doing is the most important consideration, a strategy used very effectively in Apple’s use of white earbuds in advertising and a classic area for social proof.

As Mark Earls points out, different theories of choice often focus on only one of these quadrants. Classical economists believe that everything is about considered choice, behavioural economists fixate on guesswork (cognitive biases), word-of-mouth marketers on copying peers (influencers and recommendations) and Mark Earls himself is best known for his work on copying peers.

Patterns for copying

Finally, Mark Earls offers examples of copying strategies that any marketer can use. Many of these are based on behavioural tricks, and Mark has developed his own set of Copy, Copy, Copy cards to help people use them (not dissimilar to TapestryWorks own SNAPP behaviour cards designed to help anyone to apply behavioural strategies to branding). The different approaches are broken down into the four areas above. Strategies for considered choices focus on ways of making something “better”, those of salience focus on making something more mentally available (in the words of Byron Sharp), those of copying experts focus on those based on expertise and authority, and copying peers looks to strategies that are based on leveraging popularity.

Overall, this is great read for anyone interested in marketing based on understanding the reality of human behaviour as well as those interested in approaches to creativity and innovation. The over-riding theme of the book is that any smart person facing a challenge will look first at ways in which similar problems have been tackled before trying to invent a unique and tailored solution. There is almost always a clever fix based on who someone else has solved a similar problem, so why waste your time finding a new solution. Just adapt and improve the answers that others have come up with. Like Picasso, the really smart people steal ideas and make them their own.

Copy, Copy, Copy: How to do smarter marketing by using other people’s ideas by Mark Earls

The Way We Think: Conceptual blending and the mind’s hidden complexities by Gilles Fauconnier & Mark Turner

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