Have social media ‘trending’ formats normalised idea duplication?
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Experts tell us what are the perils of working on similar ideas in today’s world.

Have social media ‘trending’ formats normalised idea duplication?

Experts tell us what are the perils of working on similar ideas in today’s world.
  • Amazon Prime’s latest social media campaign ‘Missing Me’ reminded us of Flipkart’s ‘WherestheF’ campaign from September 2020.
  • This made us wonder if social media has normalised stealing original ideas in the name of ‘trends.’
  • We reached out to experts to understand what are the perils of working on such similar ideas in today’s world.
In the social media world, brands often use a creative template that is conceptualised by one agency and tweak it a little to jump on the bandwagon. Brands don't just take ‘inspiration’, they use almost the same template and put their logo on it without seeking consent from the creator. We have normalised replicating one brand's idea for another by calling it a 'trend.' Nobody has a ‘unique voice’ anymore -- everything today is a copy of a copy of a copy. (For example, take Snapchat’s stories, Twitter Stories, Instagram Stories, Facebook Stories)

(Most of us are pretty clueless about who started this ‘India vs US’ trend first)

At the end of the day, advertising is a business of ideas and without ideas, no agency would exist. After the advent of social media, however, agencies have violated their own code of conduct about idea duplication that they have been following for years now. It has become convenient for brands to adopt original ideas and formats on social media, in the name of ‘trends’, to grab their consumer’s attention.

While one might argue that a brand only draws inspiration from the original idea to jump on the bandwagon, the same format can help another brand become more popular and even viral -- leaving the brainchild behind the campaign’s idea feel betrayed and boiling in rage. The creative person behind this brilliant idea, in return, can only calm his/her rage by commenting on the post, “Hey, that was my idea” and the industry moves on. Another day comes by, another post is uploaded without credit and another brand goes viral for an unoriginal idea.

At the same time, brands also consciously try to put out formats that can be deemed worthy enough to be picked up and go viral.

In March 2020, digital agency Schbang had written an open letter to the advertising industry titled ‘It is time to kill that #trendingformat’ after it saw thousands of content creators following their formats and the agency even agreed to have jumped on the bandwagon in the past.

It read, “Every day some of us have lost our unique voices to a trend. Not entertaining consumers anymore. Just high-fiving each other on the ‘earned media. Let’s make mediocrity unhappy and hard work great again. Let’s make art that’s tailor-made for brands.”

Schbang articulated and reflected upon what we are trying to convey with this story, almost a year ago. It is about how social media has allowed brands and agencies to leech on each other’s ideas and breed mediocrity.

This week, Amazon Prime India dropped 'Me' from its logo across social media pages and soon, everyone was talking about it. A few more brands like Dunzo, Pepsi, Parle G and Tinder India picked up on this and removed 'me' from their creatives, which was possibly a collaboration between the platform and these brands.

But wait a minute. Did you also feel a déjà vu? We have heard of this before. Sounds too similar, doesn’t it?

We couldn't help but compare Amazon Prime Me (Mobile Edition) campaign with Flipkart and Samsung's '#WhereTheF' campaign from September 2020 and spot the uncanny resemblance.

Allow us to refresh your memory.

For a few days in September 2020, Flipkart had tweeted without using the alphabet ‘F.’ Some of the words in its tweets were like ‘rom’, ‘itness’, ‘irst’, ‘inds’, and others. A-listers and brands joined in and started looking for Flipkart’s ‘F.’ Users were curious about what’s cooking and Flipkart later announced that it was a marketing ploy for Samsung's phone launch. Samsung had taken the front page of the Flipkart store to promote its Samsung Galaxy F41 and used Flipkart's social media pages to build some buzz around its launch.

And now, Amazon Prime got a few brands to tweet without the letters ‘ME’ to announce the launch of its mobile edition. Both of these campaigns have a similar strategy: make a typo to get noticed on the platform, edit your social media bio, support it with a hashtag and get more brands to tweet about it so that there’s a continuous momentum on social media to earn organic PR.

While it wasn’t a trending format, it is a similar idea and template, executed a few months apart with little changes: brand name, colour and timing. Had it been a TVC or a giant billboard, Amazon Prime would probably have been accused of plagiarism. While on social media, it is okay to revise and pass the derivative ideas as their own.

So, we reached out to experts to understand the perils of working on similar-looking ideas today and discuss if social media has normalised idea theft.

Here is what they said:

Lloyd Mathias, Angel Investor and Business Strategist:

I think this a cool twist in moment marketing, where brands pick on ongoing conversations and insert themselves with casual banter weaving their brand messaging. When brands indulge in casual repartee, it helps them come through as casual and friendly and in a sense endear themselves to their audiences.

When Flipkart kicked off the #WheresTheF trend back in September the obvious reference was to the more commonly used WTF so part of GenZ speak. It also played on Flipkart’s logo that used the F! Brands like Samsung and Swiggy were quick to pick on this pitching their own lines dropping the letter F. Amazon taking this on with its own variant for Amazon Pri….with the ME missing now has other brands latching on taking the opportunity to up their social media game. This campaign - on the missing ME - that's creating immense curiosity, is driving both interest and sparking off reactions from other brands, fuelling the conversation.

These catchy, smart, low coats conversation builders help boost excitement in social media platforms, helping the brand up it's salience and is a welcome trend in an increasingly digitally savvy society.

Harish Bijoor, Brand Guru & Founder, HarishBijoor Consults Inc:

Good ideas have a restricted shelf-life. Once a brand has used it, it becomes part of used-lore, and loses its original sting. That is the risk of using ideas used once, time and again by others. Social media is really an anarchy. Ownership of ideas is seldom respected. People lift thoughts and ideas without a qualm. Chasing idea-theft is therefore a very laborious task out here. When a brand does have an original idea, the best way to protect it is to go hammer and tongs on it, and go to town with its exposure. If the exposure is large enough, the one who wants to copy it will think thrice before doing it.

Abhik Santara, Director and CEO ^ a t o m:

It is sheer lazy marketing - by clients and agencies. And both are to be blamed equally. If an agency goes with a new idea/innovation, clients are asking to see a reference. How is that possible? It's a new idea. Similarly, agencies are getting too comfortable to present ideas which have topicality built in. It is easier to ensure a certain amount of engagement on popular subjects. But does that create any difference or add to the core of the brand? Null! A good performance campaign should help the brand and a good brand campaign must deliver performance. It's not either or. Agencies which are equipped to understand and deliver this, will drive the future.

The battle of communication between rivals is not new in marketing. It has been happening for many decades. But that was when communication was one sided, and markets were fragmented. Today, in the digital era, it is walking into fire. Consumers will pick it up, competitive brands will lash out. And probably the brand which is being copied gets more mileage out of it.

Ashish Khazanchi, Managing Partner, Enormous Brands:

I think the online world is all about conversations and fueling those conversations and making sure that you are the guy who's benefiting the most from those conversations. Couple of years back, if I came across a campaign that somebody else has already, we would put an end to ours. But what I see happening is, if I'm the originator of that kind of a thought, and lots of people wanting in on that one, you got a good thing going: you got a campaign you started off, more and more people joining in the conversation. The conversation that you started is actually working in your favor: the world is talking about it. They get some reflected glory, but the main glory, the guy who started off the conversation, that just exactly how the whole hashtagging of it or how you started all those conversations the way it works.

Akshara Vasavda, Creative Lead, Schbang:

Amazon’s campaign definitely feels similar right now, but how they take it forward might change everything. But yes, they've chosen a route that now begs scrutiny because of its obvious similarities to campaigns of well known competitor brands.

Personally, I don't think following a trend is that big a deal. Almost every single thing we consume today is a copy of a copy. Of course outright plagiarism is wrong, but when it comes to creativity in advertising, it's not just the idea on a conceptual level that makes things happen. So yes, the idea might be similar, but how it's executed, in what context it's executed, the end objective, all of that determines the success of the idea. Even if we copy a Cannes winning idea and slap it on a random brand, it won't work if the rest of the aspects aren't fitting in. If Amazon is intentionally or unintentionally copying Flipkart - a) the consumers are smart enough to see through this and it won't appeal to people as much because the intrigue factor will be lost. b) if the consumers do end up liking it, it automatically means that they did something that stood out and made people like the idea despite it being similar to a competitor brand that is also equally well known in India. Basically, in the end, the consumers decide if the brand can get away with 'copying' or not. It would be a very different conversation for things like films, shows, music, etc. But this is advertising we're talking about. Creativity is simply an added layer in the process of marketing the product - the end goal is to generate buzz, get outreach, get sales, etc. If that happens, all is good. If that doesn't happen, even the most unique idea won't be appreciated.

The Internet largely works on meme culture. This culture has now trickled down to digital advertising as well where 'formats' essentially become 'memes'. It's got its pros and cons. If your brand puts out an innovative format, and other brands end up using it as a trend, that's big validation for your own brand. Most brands wouldn't look at it as idea theft. In fact, brands today consciously try to put out formats that can be 'picked up' and go viral. But the flipside is that while some brands are pushing for innovation to be the leader of the trend, some brands are happy following trends instead of creating them. That comes down to the agency culture and the creatives working on these brands. It definitely doesn't feel like a case of idea theft right now. And where there have been cases of lazy plagiarism, like I said earlier, the consumers (and even agencies) are smart enough to call it out.

P.G Aditya, National Creative Director, Dentsu Webchutney:

Similarities like these exist across the spectrum, everywhere. There are multiple campaigns over the years that have removed a part of their brand name/logo/core asset as a teaser to launch something (the most popular global example is the I-Hop, the pancake chain, which changed its name to I-Hob on the internet to announce its new range of Burgers). That campaign by Droga5, NYC, went on to become a huge winner at Cannes Lions a few years back.

Check it out here:

On a side note, of course, all of us in the creative business can do a better job of celebrating our influences. Users applaud originality and inspiration with the same gusto as long as they’ve loved the work. Sure, we might not lose customers by being less original in our advertising, but we may gain a few more if we’re loud and proud about what’s inspired our thinking.