What the History of Counterfeiting Can Teach Us About the Future of Digital Marketing

What can a perfect Louis Vuitton knock-off from Shenzhen teach us about the future of digital marketing? At first glance: nothing. But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll realize that counterfeiting follows patterns, as does digital innovation. As creators, it is our job to note these trends and plan not just for today, but also far into the future.

We have all heard stories of that “amazing” Rolex knock-off that’s as good as the real thing for a fraction of the designer cost. I still remember growing up in Hong Kong, traveling over the borders to Shenzhen. There were enormous malls filled with Chanel purses. We would be ushered into rooms lined floor-to-ceiling with bags of every color imaginable. In China, with only a newly burgeoning luxury market and limited access to institutional luxury knowledge, copying became the norm. At one point, you could buy a knock-off Lamborghini for $66,000. The knock-offs got really good – almost indistinguishable from the real thing – and in some cases better.

There were well-documented cases in which Chinese car manufacturers would create a fake version of a car so amazingly close to the real thing that you could easily take the door off of the fake car and place it onto the real thing. This was the inflection point: copying wasn’t good enough anymore. So innovation occurred. The GE Geely is a great (though tacky) example of this flip. A car for those so rich that they didn’t need a full back seat, but rather a single throne for complete solitude.

This same flip from replication to innovation can be seen throughout paradigms in Web design. In the early onset of the Web, design principles were based around copying office design of yesteryears. Folders mimicked real-world filing systems, buttons became signals for something you could click. But as these systems became more sophisticated, there was a need for reinterpretation.

Many have made the case that Apple took advantage of this opportunity to innovate when launching its latest mobile operating system (OS). In the old OS, the design utilized to showcase the newsstand was a literal “newsstand.” Today, it’s just a neatly organized layout of content. A digital counterfeit was no longer needed; Apple innovated and changed the paradigm based on new rules.

So what does this mean for us moving forward? There are many categories of digital that are about to tip over this simple but important inflection point between replication and innovation. One obvious space is content.

Counterfeiting Content: Web content in many ways is still stuck in the realm of replication. Past broadcast television systems dictated a limited quantity of space in a rigid programming schedule. Marketers became accustomed to the structure of the 15-30-60 second ad-unit. Systems were built around this paradigm and we started thinking of video content within these terms. We then counterfeited this behavior online; we called it broadband advertising as if it were new, but why?

The Three-Second Unit: With new Web paradigms, Vine being six seconds, why are we not seeing more short-form branded content? Where are there three-second ads and content series? We should limit content only to the story that needs to be told; maybe the story needs 89 seconds or just two. If we make it interesting enough, people will engage. We’ve seen creativity blossom within the box; this happens with Twitter and we now see it happening with Vine. Why haven’t brands done so?

Choose Your Own Adventure: It’s human nature to want to choose what’s next, define our futures. However, today’s Web content rarely lets us do that. Counterfeited models still dictate that we follow explicit clear linear narratives. Once we pass the realm of replication into innovation, when will we begin to allow others to define our narrative?

Descartes was famous for saying the only knowable truth is “I think therefore I am.” Beyond that, everything else is based off of a preconceived notion, a norm we’ve counterfeited. In a world where we no longer have to counterfeit, let’s break rules. That’s what the Internet is for.

Image via Shutterstock.

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