Copying vs Stealing: Lessons from Picasso and Santa Claus

June 24, 2013

copying stealing

Several weeks ago, a former student of mine asked me on Twitter what I thought of Facebook effectively copying #hastags from Twitter. I responded: “‘Good artists copy, great artists steal’ – Picasso. Time will tell if Facebook is copying or stealing Twitter’s great ‪#contribution‬‬.” 

And now Instagram (owned by Facebook) has added video — a feature copied from Vine (owned by Twitter). However, the new Instagram allows editing, filters, focusing, stabilizing video, and more that Vine — as of the writing of this piece — does not have. If you look at the commentary on web, it has been overwhelmingly positive for Instagram with some even calling Vine dead with the hashtag #RIPVine.

In the first case of Facebook acknowledging hastags, the media was abuzz with Facebook “ripping off” Twitter; however, in the case of Instagram, people are positive toward the social media giant. The difference is exactly the point Picasso tried to make on copying vs stealing. While good artists simply copy others, the best ones copy others, iterate and improve the idea, and make it their own. In the parlance of Picasso, Facebook copied hashtags but they stole video for Instagram.

Both as an individual and as a business/brand, ask yourself what are the bright spots out there? What is your competition, both the big and small, doing better than you? What are the best practices in your industry? Who do you admire and why?

Then ask, how can I improve upon their idea(s)? What features do I like/dislike? What can be added or subtracted to make it better? Does your competitor they have a patent or some protection on this? If so, are there ways around it?

Finally, do it!

I will leave you with an example in the form of a simple question: how would you describe Santa Claus? If you thought of the fat, bearded guy in a red suit with white fur, you can thank the Coca-Cola company.

Let me explain — Santa Claus was an idea originally copied/stolen from the Dutch’s figure “Sinterklaas” based on the actual person Saint Nicholas. Sinterklaas usually was depicted as skinny (if you had billions of presents to deliver, you’d be in pretty good shape too) and often wearing green, although sometimes purple or red. In the 1930s, Coca-Cola needed to improve sales during the winter months. The company created an ad campaign depicting a portly, family-friendly, bearded man in a red suit with white fur (the colors of Coca-Cola), enjoying a bottle of Coke. The first modern Santa was born.

Coca-Cola stole Santa. They took the concept and altered it to meet their needs and branding. Then for one reason or another, everyone copied Coke’s version of Santa. So when I asked you to describe Santa, you immediately thought of Coca-Cola’s colors.

Be great like Picasso and Coke. Steal an idea and make it your own!

Photo via Flickr user believekevin
This entry was posted in Strategy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Email Brand Driven Digital

is a strategist, speaker, educator, and author of Brand Now: How to Stand Out in a Crowded, Distracted World and Get Scrappy: Smarter Digital Marketing for Businesses Big and Small. He is the Chief Brand Strategist at Brand Driven Digital, an educator at the University of Iowa, and host of the On Brand podcast. More about Nick.