There is debate over imitation. Is it in fact flattery or thievery? Several years ago, there was a fascinating art exhibition, Millet/Van Gogh, which presented 21 direct “copies” of Jean-François Millet’s art by Van Gogh and dozens of other early studies described by Van Gogh as his “translations” of the identical scenes. It was amazing to see just how many works attributed to Van Gogh were inspired by Millet’s compositions. In this case, Van Gogh enjoys more recognition today, while in his lifetime Millet was more widely recognized and had greater commercial success. Van Gogh ended his life penniless and required his brother’s assistance.

Again, is imitation flattery or is it a theft of someone else’s creativity—and does it matter? This axiom is present in music, sports, fashion, and business. Successful innovation breeds imitation.

In football, the “West Coast offense” was the rage after the San Francisco 49ers started their run of five Super Bowls with this inventive approach; head coach Bill Walsh was suddenly labeled the genius behind that innovation. In golf, when Callaway first introduced a large format club head, “Big Bertha,” for its drivers in the early ‘90s, it shifted the market to a more forgiving metal-based format. Their innovations are being copied by their competitors to this day. But who has been the big winner—Callaway or the other manufacturers? In music delivery, once the iPod became successful for Apple, other competitors, including Microsoft (with Zune), jumped in to capture some of the market. Apple still owns the lion’s share of that market, despite heavy competition. In fashion, the top designers expect that knock-off artists will copy their latest fashions and, in fact, expect this to expand the appeal of their new fashion designs into a wider industry trend.

In banking, the market is so homogenous that innovators can get market share, but the issue is always a question of value for the imitators. The more visible imitations in banking include no-fee checking designed to grow deposits, Sunday banking (and expanded weekday hours) hoped to increase and retain retail customers, and, of course, technology innovations, including remote capture targeted at capturing business deposit account customers.

Many banks take a wait-and-see approach with each of these. They have learned that it is not always just the product that attracts the customers and resulting profits. It is often a combination of product innovation with excellent marketing, or sales execution, or cross-training, or process innovations that make financial differences. This is why when we assist our clients in designing new processes, we involve marketing, technology, compliance, human resources, accounting, customers, and any functional touch point to better understand how the innovations and new design will be complete and seamless for all.

The most successful practices involve imitation with tailored design—much like Van Gogh changing the color palette of Millet’s paintings—only with a better result.