A Lesson about Admiring and Imitating the Competition

Not long ago, the Chipotle restaurant chain was highly lauded in the media. As McDonald’s struggled and replaced its CEO, Chipotle was heralded as a chain McDonald’s needed to be more like. But, now the tide has turned. Instead of idolizing Chipotle, the media is reporting the chain’s woes.

The October 20, 2015 Wall Street Journal ran the article “Chipotle Reaches Awkward Age” by Julie Jargon. The article’s subtitle highlights the chain’s “slower sales growth and attacks by critics”. The article reports that Chipotle “is increasingly contending with the problems that weigh in on many mature brands with slower growth.” This negative portrayal contrasts sharply with less than a year ago, when the media was glorifying Chipotle and suggesting that McDonald’s would benefit from acting more like Chipotle does.

There is a lesson here: competitors that are hot today may not be hot tomorrow. And, blindly following your hottest competitors is not the route to success. Successful competitors can be a source of ideas to consider. But, rather than directly imitating the hottest competitors, it’s better to evaluate what they are doing and to determine which of their ways, if any, are a good fit for your business. The key is to be selective about which ideas to adopt.

This is essential because your hottest competitors today may one day face the same unfavorable fate as Chipotle. If you blindly imitate those competitors while they’re hot, you may adopt something that’s winning today, but could be struggling tomorrow. When that happens, if what you have imitated fits your business poorly, the struggles as competition intensifies can hit your business hard. On the other hand, if the ideas you adopt do fit your business well, you may be able to integrate them into your operations in a way that strengthens your company and helps minimize any struggle that might result from more intense competition. That’s why it’s so important to focus upon what’s right for your business, matching the competition if appropriate, but not blindly following them.

So, heed the lesson of the Chipotle example and recognize that the latest hot competitor may not remain hot forever. Get ideas from paying attention to the competition, but don’t hastily imitate them when it doesn’t fit your business.

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