I had a friend over for blackberry-pear ciders the other night. He was early to the game on a cultural moment with a product that served a specific niche within that group. He dominated in his niche and found distribution through nationwide retail. But as culture changed, his business dried up. And it happened fast.

Unit economics and CAC weren’t the problem. People just… stopped purchasing his type of product.

It was as if they didn’t want it anymore.

It got me thinking — what happens when the ‘trend cycle’ makes your product or its category irrelevant? What happens when the shine wears off your brand and customers are no longer inspired? Should you move on with everyone else and sell them something else? Is that inauthentic? 

Today on Insiders, we’ll discuss the impacts of mimesis and how not to lose your shorts when the tide of the next trend cycle washes out.

Mimesis is All Around Us

Mimesis drives awareness for many purchases, especially in social media channels. “UGC” might as well be called mimesis engines. As unflattering as it feels, our desire to purchase specific products rarely stems from something within ourselves. Instead, it is often guided by the role models in our lives; personal and parasocial relationships alike.

This is a particular area of study by French philosopher Rene Girard, recently popularized by friend of the pod, Luke Burgis. I was inspired reading Luke’s newest book, Wanting, which recontextualizes Girard’s ideas into our modern area where media washes over us continually.

For many brands, there is an opportunity to capture revenue in the moment; during a high-intent purchasing season where social norms or tangible benefits are at play. Flowers on Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day; or saving money during a Black Friday sale. Other times, brands can glom onto—or even create—an aesthetic shift; shifts that take place over years. These represent new opportunities in the form of ‘attention arbitrage.’ The most adept marketers use cultural moments, created or existing, for people to see the model on display for them; and then desire it. 

In Wanting, Burgis makes the case that thinking in the abstract about things like performance marketing or demand-gen helps us understand the basic human instincts at work in the world. On models: “Models are people or things that show us what is worth wanting. It is models—not our “objective” analysis or central nervous system—that shape our desires,” says Burgis. With these models, people engage in a secret and sophisticated form of imitation that philosopher Rene Girard termed mimesis. Models are the gravitational centers around which our social lives turn.

The most common measure of the future success of a business is if they’ve found ‘product-market fit’ (PMF). In the context of consumer brands, especially those who depend on platforms like Meta and TikTok for their growth, this is an incomplete measure, to say the least. Let’s zoom out, and assume something more abstract is at work here. When we do, we’re often witnessing a momentary opportunity, not a true market gap.

This opportunity, at the very earliest stages of PMF is, in reality, product-mimesis fit. It’s not the amount of people that jump on your bandwagon, it’s about the number remaining when people jump off.

Mimesis in Business Models

Especially amongst thought leadership circles, there are a handful of ways used to generate demand for a physical product:

  • Stay up to date with the latest tactics
  • Use the popular or trending software
  • Catch moments of arbitrage (could be culture or channel)

I won’t spend much time on tactical-oriented brands other than to say that tactics are necessary for your business. Still, if your business is tactics-centered, the growth will stall at some future date—both in the market and in available talent. Tactics-based brands have a ceiling and shelf life.

“The problem with tactics is that they work until they don't,” said Mike Beckham, co-founder of Simple Modern to me in a recent podcast. “If you get on Twitter, or if you go to one of these conferences, you will hear a lot of, ‘Hey, this is what's working for us right now,’ and there's kind of a rush for everybody to apply the latest tactic, the latest hook that is effective. If we want to build strong [and] resilient companies, we've got to build on a strategy that's going to work in a bunch of different climates, and that's not tactic-dependent.”

Certainly, we want to be effective with our tactics, but tactics come and go. If you have the right team and really capable people, they can adapt and find effective tactics in any environment because you have the right kind of foundation.

Marketing tactics are quickly copied by competitors, rendering them less effective. You guessed it—this is mimesis at work. When a tactic is employed and deemed successful, it becomes a model. Modern consumers are well-educated and highly-networked: they share ‘hacks’ and trends spread algorithmically and furiously. Trend immersion is delightful until it’s not; it leads to boredom, then frustration. And then it’s sickening.

Mimetic Capture

Often, the ‘alternative’ to the tactical approach, for lack of a better word, is to capture moments of arbitrage - in channels and culture. The brands that take this approach find opportunities to insert themselves into places where the mimetic process is active at scale or understand how to foster their own mimetic models to channel desire. This can result in massive growth, as the decision to purchase has already been pre-determined by the mimetic models.

Fans of free will, beware. Mimesis supposes that when trends are trending, your purchase decisions are already made for you through the collective fascination of the crowd. Paul and Lisa Jauregui, co-founders of BK Beauty, told me that when selling on TikTok, it’s like “the decision to purchase has already been pre-made by the trend.”

The transaction's decision point happens when someone thinks that trends themselves are cool and want to be a part of it; as long as your product plays a role in helping to achieve that trend, you have mimetic viability.

Today's best marketers capture moments of memetic modeling, simultaneously distributing and highlighting the model itself. Some marketers have developed such an intuition to be famous for taking anti-mimetic brands and making them into trending, mimetic-native brands. Terence Reilly, the former CMO of Crocs and now the President of Stanley, has made a career out of just this sort of turnaround. In private circles, marketers knowingly speak of him as if they are on a first-name basis. The 2019 breakout essay that put Future Commerce on the map, Meet CARLY, featured a LinkedIn post from then-unknown Reilly discussing his mimetic model. In retrospect, that essay was entirely about mimesis; though the word itself is never mentioned.

The results of this approach have been glorified by thought leaders everywhere. However, mimetic cycles can flip. There are cautionary tales of this happening everywhere.

Mimetic Overextension

When trends stop trending—when the mimetic models lose their lustre—people leap off the bandwagon like a sinking Titanic. So what happens when consumers’ mimetic desire shifts, like with my friend’s business? Bankruptcy. 

A brilliant example of post-mimesis reckoning is the case study of Hunter Boots.

The British heritage brand, renowned for its iconic Original boot, was highly-sought-after and difficult to procure. On the face of it, the Original boot is little more than a Wellington boot, often a type of waterproof boot. Then the brand caught moments of mimetic significance, such as when Princess Diana was photographed in their green wellies.

Image credit: Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images

This photoshoot inspired waves of mimetic purchases, for years. English countryside? Check. Royals? Check. Unique set of brands? Check. This photoshoot has been used as a model in many ways. This lasted through the twenty-teens; I remember demand was through the roof. I remember buying a pair for my wife, and it was hard to find her size in stock (let alone a discount). 

But Hunter followed this demand to its logical end. They pursued an aggressive retail strategy, entering Costco and other mass retailers. They chased every last scrap of demand. They provided different colors, silhouettes, and ways to style. Eventually, discounting started to take over to capture purchases, and then a couple of years ago, they ended up on Amazon’s discount site, Woot. Landing on Woot is a clear-cut post-mimesis indicator. No one wanted their boots. They entered administration (the British equivalent of bankruptcy) last year. AlixPartners (their administrator) indicated that a key factor in Hunter’s decline was reduced demand (YEP). Hunter outpaced the mimetic desire for their product, and the consequences were dire. The Hunter brand was acquired by Authentic Brands Group in 2023.

If you’re good enough to stoke the mimetic fires, here’s your conundrum: Do you chase the available growth at risk of overextending due to potential mimetic shift? Do you capture all demand available and take what money is available to be had while it’s available to take? Or do you hold back to avoid a severe dip due to the certain impending mimetic shift?

Surfing Mimetic Waves

Image Credit: @whoslulugirl_ on TikTok

Other mimetic brands could easily repeat the decline cycle experienced by Hunter Boots. Take your pick of the modern mimetic brand. Stanley, with its 100x growth is impressive, but it could also spell the death knell of the brand if the mimetic cycle swings back in the other direction. Then, instead of frenzied lines at the local Target, we’ll be able to get them on Woot. Or even worse, we’ll see fifteen mint green Quenchers sitting sadly on the shelf of a Burlington Coat Factory. 

Can a brand architect a “soft landing” from a furious mimetic run?

The real measure of the long-term potential success of a product has to do with the natural utility of the product after the frenzy has crested. When surfing mimetic waves, you’d better be sure that your surfboard can stay afloat without the assistance of the tide.

I see a few key elements to protecting your brand from mimetic exposure. First, your product must have some component of utility to survive a mimetic shift. If your product is purely aesthetic, when desire shifts, the thing that made your product special will be lost. Purely aesthetic products are easily replaced. Sadly, my friend’s brand falls into this bucket. They may swing back into mimetic relevance again, but this is why purely aesthetic products must be an outflow of a product with utility. As a rainboot, Hunter had this in spades.

Next, friction is required to maintain success. This was Hunter’s big misstep. They decided to take all the money on the table and have enough supply and distribution for everyone interested in buying Hunter boots. People could buy them anywhere at any time. In doing so, the mimetic cycle was completed. For Stanley, the Terrence Reilly-approved solution for friction is scarcity. Often considered a dark pattern, artificial scarcity is not the only way to produce friction. Price, channel control, memberships, loyalty access, exclusives, location-specific products can all be a helpful type of friction to stay ahead of the wave. The Quencher’s waitlist grew to over 150,000 people, and when a new product is launched, there are lines out the door.

In summary, do not capture all demand.

Let your customers pull you along a bit. Make sure customers responding to mimetic desire have to work to get what they want.

This is the key: you want to have an amount of product in the market that would have been there without mimesis. You need to determine how much product is a healthy amount to exist in the world without satisfying every customer’s thirst (pun intended). This requires a level of restraint that few brands can muster, and a type of honesty that not many marketers are capable of. If you exceed this threshold for any product, you risk brand dilution, devaluation, and the ‘flippening’ of the mimetic cycle. At some level, this is unavoidable. A key measure to understand and forecast is your post-mimetic cycle market size. That is to say, how many people are going to keep purchasing your product after mimesis runs it course.

Normalcy is the Death of Mimesis

Scarcity is soon replaced by normalcy. It’s normal to have a pair of Crocs as a go-to slip-on, and now mimesis has less sway in growth as a business. The problem with normalcy is that consumers will only buy if they feel like they need a new product because theirs is worn out or because they need to update the aesthetic of their product. This is where Stanley might run into trouble, and Hunter did as well. Both make a very durable product. Once everyone who wants a Stanley has one, aesthetics will be the only way to ensure a repurchase. 

Normalcy has the market share you own is often easily breached by other brands and knockoffs. This is where the final tool comes in. You need to have the right culture and team. “If you have the right team… they're going to be able to adapt and find the effective tactics in any environment because you have the right kind of foundation,” Beckham reminded me. Curiously, Beckham sells insulated drinkware, just like Stanley.

My friend’s business went under, but my friend did not. It’s easy to forget that brands are temporal vehicles for the talented and valuable people behind them. He ended up at another company that he was super-passionate about and is thriving there. A lot of that thriving is because of the lessons he learned while running his own business. Passionate, smart people will win the day and are required for continued success after a mimetic cycle.

To sum it up, assessing post-mimesis market size requires understanding the intersection of the total addressable market (TAM), the nature of the product, and the brand's approach to mimesis. Without a clear understanding of these elements, even a heritage brand can find themselves washed ashore by the very mimetic wave that made them popular.