Emulation and Imitation in Marketing

A simple experiment with chimps and children offers profound insights into our cognitive processes. The research presents both chimps and children with a box — initially opaque, then transparent — that delivers rewards for specific actions. When the box is opaque, both groups imitate the experimenter’s actions to achieve their goal.


However, when the box becomes transparent, showing that some actions are superfluous, chimps adapt, seeking efficiency, while children continue to replicate the entire sequence of actions.

This isn’t to say that humans are less intelligent; rather, it exposes an automatic inclination towards imitation that can override our understanding of a task’s underlying mechanics. Humans often default to mimicking those we perceive as knowledgeable, a strategy that, while generally advantageous, can come at a cost — especially when it bypasses our innate capacity for critical thinking and causal reasoning.

For marketers, this tendency has specific implications. We rely on what’s worked in the past, sometimes to the point of overimitation — replicating strategies without fully understanding their current relevance or efficacy. This approach can clutter and complicate our marketing strategies with elements that are no longer necessary. 

Navigating the Past and Present

The real skill lies in synthesizing collective wisdom with strategic innovation. We must look beyond what is simply visible or has been done before to understand the ‘why’ behind each action. 

This deep dive into the causal relationships in our marketing strategies allows us to discern which tactics are worth carrying forward and which are merely vestiges of outdated practices.

A commitment to experimentation is equally crucial. Like the transparency of the puzzle box that guided the chimps to efficiency, a test-and-learn approach in marketing helps us identify what truly works, enabling us to refine our strategies.

Our collective knowledge is dynamic, evolving with each campaign we execute. As marketers, we contribute to this knowledge, shaping the future of our industry with every narrative we craft.

Drawing from both the experiment’s lessons and my experience, here are key takeaways that balance imitation with innovation:

  • Hypothesis-Driven Strategy: Start with a hypothesis to foster critical thinking.
  • Experimentation and Testing: Adopt a test-and-learn approach to refine your strategy based on what resonates with your audience.
  • Analytical Rigor: Measure success with analytical methods to ensure data-driven decisions.
  • Control Groups and Variables: Understand the impact of different variables to accurately gauge the effect of your marketing actions.
  • Adaptability and Evolution: Embrace the evolution of marketing strategies in response to new information and environments.
  • Objective Analysis: Separate facts from feelings when evaluating performance to mitigate cognitive biases.
  • Reproducibility and Scalability: Ensure that successful strategies can be replicated and scaled for long-term value.

As we continue to learn from the world around us, let’s be selective in our imitation, thoughtful in our emulation, and relentless in our pursuit of innovation.

By striking a balance between the wisdom of the past and the insights of the present, we can craft marketing strategies that are not only reflective of our collective experience but also attuned to the nuances of our evolving marketplace.