Management Research, vol. 5, no. 2 (Spring 2007), pp. 71–82.
© 2007 M.E.Sharpe, Inc. All rights reserved.
ISSN 1536-5433 / 2007 $9.50 + 0.00.
Because of the progressive internationalization of markets,
the economic framework in which companies operate is char
acterized by a considerable increase in the degree of competi
tion. Given this situation, companies have been obliged to
use various mechanisms in their strategies for obtaining and
maintaining competitive advantage.
Innovation has become fundamental for achieving com
petitive advantage (Brown & Eisenhardt, 1995; Darroch &
McNaughton, 2002; Hamel, 1998; Martinez-Ros & Salas-
Fumás, 2004; Van de Ven, 1986; Van de Ven & Poole, 1995;
Zhou, 2006) and is currently one of the principal topics of
debate in the management literature (Sørensen & Stuart,
2000). There is a wealth of studies that claim to demonstrate
the positive effect of innovations on company competitive
ness. However, the management literature has forgotten that
imitation is an organizational behavior that can also generate
sustainable competitive advantages and, apart from recent ex
ceptions (Adner & Zemsky, 2006; Hodgson & Knudsen, 2006;
Lieberman & Asaba, 2006; Zhou, 2006), imitation has only
been analyzed from the point of view of a company that wishes
to avoid being imitated (Barney, 1991; Kogut & Zander, 1993;
MacMillan, McCaffery, & Van Wijk, 1985; McEvily, Das, &
McCabe, 2000; Rivkin, 2001) or of a company that may wish
to encourage others to imitate it (Conner, 1995; McEvily et
al., 2000). This situation, together with the lack of consensus
on the conceptual delimitation of the terms innovation and
imitation, has led us to raise several research questions: What
are the differences between innovating and imitating? What
factors explain these differences? Can imitation be a source of
sustainable competitive advantage? Obtaining answers to these
questions is the aim of this paper. First, after a bibliographic
review of different conceptualizations utilized for the term
innovation, we delimit the concepts of innovation and imita-
tion by analyzing the factors identiﬁed in the literature as the
typical features of innovation. Then, basing our arguments
on the factors indicated, we aim to identify different types
of innovative and imitative companies in terms of the char
acteristics taken by the features that deﬁne the two concepts
(innovation and imitation). Our third objective is to examine
the circumstances that must apply to an organization so that
imitation, like innovation, may become a source of sustainable
Johan Wiklund is a professor of entrepreneurship at Jönköping In-
ternational Business School (Sweden). His research interests include
entrepreneurship, growth, and competitiveness.
Financial support from the Ministry of Science and Technology of
Spain, grant SEC2003–07741, is gratefully acknowledged.
Ana Pérez-Luño is a Ph.D. candidate in organization and strategic
management at Pablo de Olavide University (Spain). Her interests
are in innovation, knowledge, and entrepreneurship.
Ramón Valle Cabrera is a professor in the Business Administration
Department, Pablo de Olavide University (Spain). His main research
areas are strategic human resource management and innovation
INNOVATION AND IMITATION AS SOURCES OF SUSTAINABLE
ANA PÉREZ-LUÑO, RAMÓN VALLE CABRERA, AND JOHAN WIKLUND
ABSTRACT: The present study ﬁlls some of the void in the literature on the concept and phenomenon of innovation and
imitation. Basing our arguments on features that the literature indicates are characteristics of innovation, we delimit the
concepts of innovation and imitation. Using these features and considering a company’s degree of entrepreneurial and
market orientation, we devise a typology of companies ranging from radical innovators to strict imitators. We also argue
that some key factors and the choice of appropriate strategy determine whether innovative and imitative companies can
obtain and maintain their sustainable competitive advantages.
RESUMEN: El presente estudio trata de cerrar alguno de los vacíos existentes en la literatura sobre el concepto y fenó-
meno de la innovación y la imitación. Basando nuestros argumentos en rasgos que la literatura señala como característicos
de la innovación, delimitamos los conceptos de innovación e imitación. Utilizando estos rasgos y teniendo en cuenta el
grado de orientación emprendedora y de mercado de la empresa, desarrollamos una tipología de empresas que va desde las
innovadoras radicales a las imitadoras estrictas. También argumentamos que el uso de factores clave y la elección de una
estrategia adecuada determinan que una organización, ya sea innovadora o imitadora, pueda obtener y mantener ventajas
72 Management Research
Through these established objectives, we hope to contribute
to the scarce literature on the phenomenon of imitation by
providing conceptual aspects that help to differentiate and
understand the behavior of this type of organization. To this
end, the classiﬁcation of innovative and imitative companies
that we propose may allow us to ﬁll the void in the literature
on how to identify the innovative or imitative behaviors of
organizations. The paper demonstrates to both managers and
academics that, by utilizing appropriate resources and capa
bilities, imitation can be as interesting as innovation for the
competitiveness of the organization and that, with the appro
priate strategy, innovators and imitators can coexist without
losing their competitive positions.
The theoretical framework selected for working toward our
objectives is the resource-based view of the ﬁrm (Barney, 1991;
Peteraf, 1993; Prahalad & Hamel, 1990; Wernerfelt, 1984),
as it provides the conceptual support that allows us to argue
that the features characterizing innovation and imitation can
be utilized as sources of sustainable competitive advantage.
INNOVATION VERSUS IMITATION:
The review of the literature demonstrates that the results in
the ﬁeld of innovation have been inconclusive, inconsistent,
and characterized by limited explanatory power (Becheikh,
Landry, & Amara, 2005; Wolfe, 1994; Zmud, 1982). One pos
sible explanation for the lack of similarity in the conclusions
of researchers is the diverse range concepts, contexts, charac
teristics, types, stages, and so on, used by different authors to
study innovation. As a consequence, the current state of the
organizational innovation literature offers little guidance to
those interested in this concept (Wolfe, 1994). Because of the
different value judgments attached to the term, there are many
problems in establishing a complete and tight deﬁnition of
innovation. The only feature common to all the deﬁnitions is
that innovation implies novelty (Cabello Medina, Carmona
Lavado, & Valle Cabrera, 2006; Damanpour, 1991; Grossman
& Helpman, 1991; Knight, 1967; Li & Atuahene-Gima,
2001; Mahmood & Ruﬁn, 2005; Quinn, 1979; Schumpeter,
1961; Thompson, 1967). Regarding the term
does seem to be a consensus in the literature that to imitate
is to copy (Adner & Zemsky, 2006; Brozen, 1951; Conner,
1995; Grossman & Helpman, 1991; Hodgson & Knudsen,
2006; Lieberman & Asaba, 2006; Mahmood & Ruﬁn, 2005;
Mansﬁeld, Schwartz, & Wagner, 1981; Zhou, 2006), although
the vagueness inherent in this statement does not clarify
what is understood or implied by this copying activity or
As stated in the introduction, the ﬁrst objective of this paper
is to delimit conceptually the terms
innovation and imitation.
This does not mean summarizing the existing literature, but
rather extracting the most characteristic factors of innovation
and setting them against imitation and, in this way, obtaining
deﬁnitions that allow the two concepts to be differentiated.
The reason for this objective is that there are articles that, in
our judgment, speak of imitation when they are really referring
to incremental innovations (Lieberman & Montgomery, 1988;
Zhou, 2006), or of innovations when really they are explaining
imitation behavior (Damanpour, 1991; Li & Atuahene-Gima,
2001). As an example of the ﬁrst case, Zhou (2006) speaks of
“creative followers” to refer to companies that make incre
mental innovations based on the radical innovations of others.
Regarding authors who utilize the term
innovation to refer to
imitations, we would include all those who consider that in
novation covers “the adoption of an idea that is only new for
the organization adopting it” (Damanpour, 1991). Arguments
supporting our position are developed next.
To achieve our ﬁrst objective, we start with an analysis of
the principal deﬁnitions formulated for the term
and extract the factors that best characterize this behavior
so that they may then be utilized to delimit the concept of
We have mentioned that the only common element among
all the deﬁnitions of innovation is that it implies novelty.
However, there is not a consensus in the rest of the param
eters that deﬁne this term (Wolfe, 1994). For example, some
authors consider that innovations should represent a positive
beneﬁt, especially in the form of an economic improvement,
and should be of value to the organization that adopts them
(Knight, 1967), while others do not mention such consid-
erations. Table 1 classiﬁes the principal authors who have
analyzed this concept, in terms of whether they consider the
subsequent market or commercial success of an innovation
as a necessary factor for innovation. In other words, Table 1
examines whether these authors take into account innovation’s
positive impact on the market.
Having considered the various deﬁnitions given by the
authors indicated in Table 1, we proceed to study two classic
conceptualizations that are representative of the two alterna
tive views—that of Schumpeter (1961) and that of Thompson
Schumpeter (1961) dealt with innovation within the theory
of economic development as a process of putting into practice
new combinations of materials and forces. These new combi
nations imply producing new things, or the same things but
using new methods. For Schumpeter, innovation is the key
determinant of growth of the capitalist economy; that is, for
him, innovation by the capitalist company includes creat
ing new markets and new forms of industrial organization.
Some years later, Thompson (1967) deﬁned innovation as the
generation, acceptance, and implementation of new ideas,
processes, products, and services. Both deﬁnitions are generic,
but introduce interesting aspects. Schumpeter’s (1961) deﬁni-
Innovation and Imitation as Sources of Sustainable Competitive Advantage 73
tion contains implicit conditions such as the positive effect of
the innovation, economic improvement, and the creation of
value for the company that adopts it; that is, it implies market
success. Thompson’s (1967) deﬁnition, however, refers to the
generation, acceptance, and implementation of new ideas,
without mentioning the need for the idea to have a positive
impact in the market.
There are authors who combine the two necessary factors,
the generation of new ideas and their resulting commercial
success, when referring to innovation. Grossman and Helpman
(1991) and Mahmood and Ruﬁn (2005) deﬁne innovation as
a form of technological development that expands not only
a ﬁrm’s existing knowledge set but also the existing world
knowledge set, whereas imitation is deﬁned as the form of
technological development that expands the ﬁrm’s existing
knowledge set but not the existing world knowledge set.
The ﬁrst notable aspect of these deﬁnitions is that they state
that, whereas innovation expands the knowledge existing in
the world, imitation expands only the knowledge existing in
the company that adopts something new. This is a key deter
mining factor that differentiates between the two concepts,
because only the company that innovates actually generates
the idea, whereas the rest (imitators) apply knowledge that
already exists (Mahmood & Ruﬁn, 2005). Put another way, for
imitation, the search for knowledge and its implementation
is sufﬁcient but, for innovation to take place, the generation
of ideas from new knowledge or from the novel combination
of existing knowledge is required (Galunic & Rodan, 1998;
Mahmood & Ruﬁn, 2005). The generation of the idea is our
point of departure for distinguishing between innovation and
imitation. Only those companies that generate new ideas can
be analyzed as possibly innovative, whereas those that take a
previously existing idea should be considered imitators. The
generation of the idea is the necessary condition for obtaining
an innovation, but we should make it clear that this is not
a sufﬁcient condition in itself because, for innovation rather
than merely invention, this idea must be put into practice
(Damanpour, 1991; Schumpeter, 1961; Utterback, 1971).
Accepting that only the company generating the idea can be
considered innovative suggests to us that the factor of tim
ing must also be considered for the differentiation of the two
concepts, because generating a new idea means being the ﬁrst
to implement it and launch it on the market (Hodgson &
Knudsen, 2006). Knight (1967) indicates that the innovation
must be new for the organization and for its environment of
reference. This consideration introduces the variable space. In
terms of restrictive conditions, when considering innovation,
all the known space—in effect, the global marketplace—must
be considered, because this allows us to separate the company
that generates the idea, produces it, and applies it for the ﬁrst
time anywhere (the innovator) from another (an imitator) that
later applies and markets that same idea (Guellec, 1999). By
introducing the space variable, we also make it possible to
distinguish between a company that follows the innovator in
the same market (an imitator) and another that adopts an in-
novation so as to launch it in a different or new market segment
or territory. These three factors, the generation of ideas, timing,
and space, will help us establish a typology of innovators and
imitators that corresponds better to the real world.
TYPOLOGY OF INNOVATIVE AND
In the previous section, we stated that the basic differentiating
factor between innovation and imitation resides in whether the
original idea is generated by the company. In this section, we
specify how a company can be classiﬁed as one or another type
by examining, among other factors, the source of knowledge
that enables the company to generate these ideas. To gener-
ate an idea means to conceive something that no one else has
imagined. It is the germ of the innovation and implies a sig
niﬁcant element or input of creativity (Knight, 1967; Roberts,
1988). We have already commented that only a product,
service, or process obtained from novel ideas generated within
the organization should be considered an innovation, whereas
all those that other companies adopt later, derived from such
ideas without adding any novel element of their own, should
be classiﬁed as imitations.
The literature distinguishes between entrepreneurial
(Miller, 1983) and market-oriented (Narver & Slater, 1990)
organizational attitudes as factors inﬂuencing innovation
(Atuahene-Gima & Ko, 2001; Hult, Hurley, & Knight, 2004).
However, previous researchers have not proposed that it is
precisely the choice of one or both orientations that directly
inﬂuences the provenance (internal or external sources) of the
knowledge to be applied, and indirectly inﬂuences the strate
gic decision to innovate or imitate. Those companies with an
entrepreneurial orientation are “exploiters” of the knowledge
Classiﬁcation of Authors Who Have Deﬁned
Deﬁnition requires Deﬁnition does not require
positive market impact positive market impact
Afuah (1998) Becker and Whisler (1967)
Grossman and Helpman (1991) Damanpour (1991)
Knight (1967) Damanpour and
Mahmood and Ruﬁn (2005) Gopalakrishnan (1998)
Quinn (1979) Downs and Mohr (1976)
Schumpeter (1961) Li and Atuahene-Gima (2001)
Van de Ven (1986) Pennings and Harianto (1992)
Vrakking (1990) Sharma (1999)
74 Management Research
generated by the “explorations” of their scientists or R&D
personnel, which leads them to propose new ideas that are
brought into material form as new products, services, or pro
cesses (Wiklund & Shepherd, 2003). The entrepreneur’s role is
to initiate and design changes intended to make the enterprise
more proﬁtable, and to continually seek new opportunities and
solutions to problems. Hence, the entrepreneurial approach
implies a profound knowledge of the organization and its en-
vironment. In light of this, we consider that companies with
an entrepreneurial orientation will have a greater propensity
to generate their own ideas (innovation) rather than to adopt
ideas generated by others (imitation).
Miller (1983) deﬁnes the entrepreneurial orientation as the
approach characterized by innovativeness,
and proactivity. In other words, companies with this kind of
orientation are disposed to assume the risks inherent in in
novation or entry into new markets, and generally display
proactive attitudes. A proactive attitude or stance is identiﬁed
with technological leadership and with the desire to be ﬁrst
or a pioneer (Ansoff, 1965; Lieberman & Montgomery, 1998;
VanderWerf & Mahon, 1997), whereas the reactive attitude
or stance better describes those companies that are always
followers or imitators (Ansoff, 1965; Porter, 1985; Sharma &
Vredenburg, 1998). Expanding knowledge on a worldwide
scale represents a proactive attitude, whereas expanding it
within an organization can be a symptom of a mere reaction
to the changes that are taking place in the environment of an
organization. Only those companies with a proactive behavior
will be able to launch innovations to the global market. Thus,
proactive behavior implies a dynamic research and development
policy with a main objective of ensuring a continuing ﬂow of
new products or services for introduction into the market. In
some cases, it also implies securing technological leadership
through the design of innovative productive processes (Miles &
Snow, 1978; Slater & Narver, 1993). It is an attitude that also
implies the acceptance of high levels of risk (Baucus, Golec,
& Cooper, 1993; McNamara & Bromiley, 1999; Wiseman &
Bromiley, 1996), both technological and commercial.
The risk factor has been analyzed in the literature from sev
eral perspectives (Lumpkin & Dess, 1996), and it is considered
one of the main dimensions of the entrepreneurial orientation
(Miller, 1983). The degree of risk incurred by launching an
innovation is understood to be much greater than that accepted
by the company that adopts an imitation. This is because the
innovator confronts a change in the knowledge existing at
the global level, and incorporates the commercial risk and
the technological risk inherent in true innovation (Wiseman
& Bromiley, 1996; Zhou, 2006). The case of the imitator is
different in that imitation assumes only an expansion of inter
nal or local knowledge of an idea that is already functioning
in the market; hence, the technological risk is much less and
the commercial risk should be lower when the market of the
imitator is similar to that being successfully supplied by the
It has been stated that an essential prerequisite for the
development of successful innovations is a good knowledge
of the industry and markets in which the organization oper-
ates (Deshpandé, Farley, & Webster, 1993). An organization’s
knowledge of its environment will be more extensive the
stronger its market orientation (Atuahene-Gima & Ko, 2001).
Kohli and Jaworski (1993) deﬁne market orientation as the set
of behaviors and activities related to the generation and dis-
semination of ideas in response to market intelligence, carried
out with the aim of satisfying customer needs. Although the
traditional literature considered that market orientation was
centered exclusively on customers and their needs, more recent
studies have given it a wider focus and understand it as the
concern with or study of the business environment in general,
including customers, competitors, suppliers, and other external
forces that affect the behavior of the organization (Deshpandé
et al., 1993). Thus, we understand that companies with this
type of orientation are disposed to continually modify their
“offer”—their products, services, and processes—to satisfy the
needs of their market (Narver & Slater, 1990). In line with
these assumptions, the process of modiﬁcation or adaptation
of their offer may be understood as coming naturally to or
ganizations with this type of orientation. Market orientation
can thus be considered an organizational attitude that can be
materialized either in a proactive type of behavior, whereby
the company always wants to be the ﬁrst to satisfy possible
customer needs, or in a reactive strategy, whereby the company
seeks continually to adapt its products in line with the move-
ments of the market (by focusing on competitors’ activities).
The proactive attitude of market-oriented companies can
be observed in the continuous acquisition of knowledge from
the market and, based on this information, the disposition to
invent and adapt products, services, and processes with the pur
pose of continually satisfying customers’ needs. Quinn (1979)
observed a strong market orientation in most innovative com
panies, and stated that this is due to the capacity of responding
continually to the changing needs of their clients.
The reactive attitude is the approach chosen by those com
panies that do not want to be or are not able to be the ﬁrst to
the market with a new product, service, or process, nor do they
wish to be “left behind” (Porter, 1980). This choice may form
part of a series of policies based on avoiding the risks inherent
in innovation and on constantly monitoring the environment
so that the company is in a position to implement the innova-
tions launched by other, more adventurous companies and to
exploit the experience that it has in other areas (Twiss, 1974).
A company that maintains a reactive form of behavior must
be capable of imitating the successful innovations made by
its more proactive competitors within a relatively short time;
therefore, it may wish to retain a more modest R&D capacity,
Innovation and Imitation as Sources of Sustainable Competitive Advantage 75
and must make use of license agreements and correctly apply
the know-how acquired. Through this approach of exploiting
the successes of the pioneers while avoiding their failures, com
panies should incur less technological and commercial risk.
The choice of a proactive posture can be seen as implying
a greater focus on customers leading to innovations, and the
choice of reactive posture can be seen as implying a greater
focus on competitors, and could thus be associated with imi
tation (MacMillan et al., 1985). With this line of reasoning,
market-oriented companies with a corresponding focus on their
clients should have a greater propensity to generate ideas to
satisfy their customers’ needs and innovate. Conversely, those
companies with a focus on competitors should have a greater
propensity to adopt ideas generated externally and imitate.
Schumpeter (1961) emphasized that entrepreneurs are
critical for the progress of capitalism, because they generate
radical innovations that change the rules of the game in an
industry or in an economy. If entrepreneurs’ activities can
lead to radical and even destructive results (Galunic & Rodan,
1998), we need to reconsider the source of knowledge necessary
for developing innovations. Miller (1983) stated that radical
innovations emanate from scientiﬁc research supported by an
entrepreneurial orientation. On the other hand, the strategy
aimed at continually satisfying customer needs, characteristic
of a market-oriented company, will lead to specialization in
the development of incremental innovations (Atuahene-Gima
& Ko, 2001).
Authors such as Darroch and McNaughton (2002) suggest
that incremental innovation can be classiﬁed as a “pull”-type
innovation (Zmud, 1984), whereas a “push”-type innovation
is radical innovation. An incremental innovation is “pulled” in
the sense that it utilizes information obtained from the micro-
environment of the innovator, and is applied by companies
that are more oriented to the market and are more skillful in
collecting and disseminating ideas and responding to intel
ligence about their environment (Kohli & Jaworski, 1990).
This type of organization tends to act proactively and assumes
a moderate level of technological and commercial risk. The
technological risk is moderate because its innovations consist
mainly of improvements to an existing product, process, or
service. Although such improvements will have a certain de-
gree of novelty, they do not represent a clear break with the
ruling and, hence, proven technology (Damanpour, 1991).
Commercial risk is also limited because such improvements
are introduced after detecting a need in the market, which
should increase the chances of commercial success. The com-
panies with the propensity to develop this type of innovation
are designated, in this paper, as incremental innovators. Note
that those companies that are too attentive to the current
needs of the market can fall into the trap of learning myopia.
This is a type of organizational shortsightedness that slows
or prevents an organization’s creative response in the face of
emerging technologies (Atuahene-Gima & Ko, 2001) and
that, in the medium or long term, can lead to the company
losing competitive capabilities. From our understanding that
the development of incremental innovations implies being
the ﬁrst to introduce a modiﬁcation to an existing product,
service, or process, and following the reﬂections offered on
the characteristics of incremental innovator companies, we
formulate our ﬁrst proposition.
Proposition 1: “Incremental innovator” companies are positively
associated with a strong market orientation and a moderate
entrepreneurial orientation, which implies a proactive attitude
and the assumption of moderate levels of technological and
Radical innovations can be destructive of existing compe-
tences and often cause an organization’s abilities to become
out of phase with its current knowledge (Henderson & Clark,
1990). These types of innovations are normally originated by
scientiﬁc research and hence are usually classiﬁed as push-
type innovations, with their main impulse being an advance
in science or technology (Zmud, 1984). They often put the
whole business at risk because they are more difﬁcult to mar
ket successfully and involve signiﬁcant investment; however,
they are important for the long-term competitiveness of the
company because they involve the development and application
of new technologies (Atuahene-Gima & Ko, 2001; Darroch
& McNaughton, 2002). Companies with the propensity to
develop this type of innovation are designated, in this paper,
as radical innovators. The incorporation of radical changes in a
technology implies a proactive attitude and readiness to accept
a high degree of technological and market risk. The high tech
nological risk is related to the technology being new and hence
unproven and to the need to obtain additional information on
components, methods, and techniques that would help make
the new product function correctly. The high market risk is
related to uncertainty regarding the possible acceptance of the
innovation. Note also that technological and market uncertain-
ties are very closely related: when an organization knows more
about its customers’ requirements, it will be better placed to
take the correct technological decisions regarding the speciﬁca
tion of the new product/service (Afuah, 1998). If we assume
that the development of radical innovations implies being the
ﬁrst to introduce something that is a radical departure from the
existing technology and if we accept the arguments presented
for characterizing the radical innovator companies, we can put
forward the second proposition.
Proposition 2: “Radical innovator” companies are positively
associated with a moderate market orientation and a strong
entrepreneurial orientation, which implies a proactive attitude
and the assumption of high levels of technological and com
76 Management Research
Some recent articles argue that attitudes of extreme en-
trepreneurial or market orientation lead a company to be
ineffective against its competitors and, for this reason, claim
that companies seek equilibrium between the two attitudes
(Atuahene-Gima & Ko, 2001). Radical innovations often open
new opportunities for developing incremental improvements
in the future. In fact, Afuah (1998) stated that radical innova-
tions are those in which the technological knowledge neces
sary for their exploitation is very different from the existing
knowledge, whereas the knowledge necessary for developing
incremental innovations is based on existing knowledge. Thus,
companies should be capable of obtaining market knowledge
from the existing customers and at the same time should
make efforts to obtain new combinations from the technology
generated by their researchers (Freeman, 1982). The organiza
tions that operate with the objective of balancing these two
approaches, which we designate here as mixed innovators,
tend to show better results than those adopting either a push
or pull type of innovation strategy exclusively (Cooper, 1985),
because of the beneﬁts and synergies derived from combining
the approaches. Normally, this type of company maintains a
proactive attitude by satisfying customer needs by introducing
incremental innovations, without risking its competitiveness
in the long term, because at the same time, they are research
ing ways to introduce radical innovations (Atuahene-Gima
& Ko, 2001). The commercial risk assumed by this type of
company is moderated by having a profound knowledge of its
business environment; its technological risk will depend on
how revolutionary or radical it dares to be in its innovations.
The development of both radical and incremental innovations
by a company implies that it aims to be the ﬁrst to introduce
a new product that represents either a signiﬁcant advance
beyond the existing technology or merely a modiﬁcation of
that technology, respectively. This reasoning and the reﬂections
regarding mixed innovator companies allow us to establish the
Proposition 3: “Mixed innovator” companies are positively
associated with a strong market orientation and a strong
entrepreneurial orientation, which implies a proactive attitude
and the assumption of moderate levels of technological and
If we incorporate into this debate the possibility that the
company may not aim to be the ﬁrst to introduce something
new, we can distinguish between those that imitate and oper
ate in the same markets as the innovators, and those that do
so in different markets. In the ﬁrst place, taking into account
the factor of timing, we argue that only the ﬁrst to generate
an idea and apply it as a new product should be considered
an innovator, and that all the rest are imitators. Schumpeter
(1961) considered that the probability of two or more com-
panies simultaneously developing the same innovation was so
small that it could be ignored, and so we will not consider this
possibility here. The real problem arises when we ask how to
classify the companies that are the second, third, and so on, at
the global or absolute level, in launching an innovation, but
that are the ﬁrst to do so in their market. To understand this
situation, we can use the terminology proposed by Guellec
(1999) and deﬁne global innovation as an innovation that is
new for the economy as a whole and local innovation as an inno
vation that is new in a limited environment. In this analysis, we
have designated this latter type as imitation. Further, within
the local type of innovation (imitation), we can distinguish
between innovations that are applied in a particular market and
those that are new only internally. A company that adopts an
innovation that is new for the company but has already been
successfully applied or marketed in its reference market will be
considered an imitator in the strict sense, whereas we propose
to designate a ﬁrm as an explorer company if it introduces
innovations in a market different from that supplied by the
strict innovator company.
The companies that are imitators in the strict sense (those
that adopt an imitation of a product already being offered in
their reference market) are considered to be acting reactively
(D’Aveni, 1994), showing a lack of entrepreneurial orienta
tion (Covin & Slevin, 1989), and having only a weak market
orientation (Narver & Slater, 1990) by paying more attention
to competitors’ actions than to customers’ needs. They are as
suming a minimum degree of technological and commercial
risk, because there is little uncertainty about the technology
involved or about the acceptability of their “new” product
(which has already been launched by another company in its
market). They are companies that have not detected the cor-
responding need in their speciﬁc environment until another
company has implemented the innovation to meet it. Further
more, they either do not have the capability or are too cautious
or conservative to introduce a new technology in their industry
sector. This type of organization will be able to imitate the
products launched by its competitors whenever this policy does
not require great technological capacity and, because it lacks
entrepreneurial orientation, it is unlikely to have invested in
the technological resources or in the knowledge necessary to be
able to launch radical imitations (McEvily et al., 2000). This
argument leads us to think that the strict imitator companies
tend to develop incremental imitations, and that, to adopt
imitations that are radical for their own organization, they
would need to acquire the necessary knowledge in a relatively
simple and explicit form (for example, through licenses). These
reﬂections allow us to put forward the next proposition.
Proposition 4: “Strict imitator” companies are positively associ
ated with a weak market orientation and a lack of entrepre
neurial orientation, which implies a reactive attitude and the
assumption of low technological and commercial risk.
Innovation and Imitation as Sources of Sustainable Competitive Advantage 77
Those companies that adopt innovations developed by oth-
ers in order to introduce them into different markets—that
is, companies that are alert to what is happening at the global
level so that they can be the ﬁrst to transfer new ideas into
their own environment and satisfy the needs of their custom
ers—are designated, in this paper, explorer companies
companies show features of entrepreneurial orientation (Covin
& Slevin, 1989) and a strong market orientation (Narver &
Slater, 1990). The strong market orientation of this type of
company is seen from the companies’ readiness to collect and
analyze information in order to respond to the needs of their
customers (Kohli & Jaworski, 1990), although, for this, they
may have to study unrelated industries. Their proactive at
titude of seeking opportunities and their capacity to assume
the commercial risk involved in the launching of new products
for their market indicate that organizations of this type are
entrepreneurial in their approach (Miller, 1983); however,
this orientation is limited, because they are unlikely to have
the capacity to generate the original ideas that culminate in
such innovations. These companies aim to satisfy the needs
of their customers by adopting incremental innovations and
are ready to accept the commercial risk of adopting radical
innovations and launching them in their market of reference.
The technological risk is low because it is unlikely that there
will be much uncertainty in the manufacture of the product
adopted. These arguments allow us to put forward the next
Proposition 5: “Explorer” companies are positively associated
with a strong market orientation and a limited entrepreneurial
orientation, which implies proactive attitude and the assump
tion of low levels of technological risk and moderate levels of
Figure 1 shows the different types of company that we
have identiﬁed in terms of their entrepreneurial and market
The innovative companies, whether radical, incremental,
or mixed, are generators of original ideas and aim to be the
ﬁrst to apply them as new products, and so on, on a worldwide
scale; this behavior can be considered the result of a proactive
attitude. The degree of technological risk that companies are
prepared to incur will be determined by the radicalness of the
innovation developed, and the degree of commercial risk by the
organization’s knowledge of the market. Porter (1985) stated
that those companies that aim to respond to their customers
before their competitors will assume a considerable technologi
cal risk, whereas those whose policy is to react to the actions
of their competitors will minimize this risk. The commercial
risks run by market-oriented companies is much less than the
risks facing companies with an entrepreneurial orientation,
because the possibilities of achieving commercial success are
higher if the company is more attentive to the signals from its
environment. These statements demonstrate the existence of the
risk inherent in the innovation process, whether these derive
from the technological implementation or from the commer
cial exploitation. It is desirable that the innovative company
keeps a balance between its strong entrepreneurial and market
orientations, with the object of being able to launch its new
products in the most effective way (Atuahene-Gima & Ko,
2001), as occurs in the case of the “mixed innovator.” Those
companies with greater propensity for radical innovations will
Typology “Map” of Innovator and Imitator Companies
78 Management Research
have a stronger entrepreneurial orientation than those opting
to implement incremental innovations. If they demonstrate a
strong entrepreneurial orientation and a weak market orienta
tion, they might fail to understand or identify the needs of their
customers and consequently be unsuccessful in their innovations.
If the company has a weak entrepreneurial and strong market
orientation, it is unlikely to have the R&D capacity to meet
the customer needs identiﬁed. The “explorer” companies may
not generate original ideas, but they aim to be the ﬁrst to apply
them as new products, and so on, at the level of their reference
market. These organizations demonstrate a proactive attitude
while running less technological risk than the innovator com
panies, although they accept a signiﬁcant level of commercial
risk by launching an innovation in a market different from that
of the innovator. To be successful, they need to present a strong
market orientation and at least a moderate entrepreneurial ori
entation. Last, the imitator companies will not aim to be the
ﬁrst in their market of reference, will present a reactive attitude,
and will be prepared to accept only low levels of technological
and commercial risk.
INNOVATION, IMITATION, AND
Barney (1991) stated that a company obtains competitive
advantages when it implements a value-creating strategy that
is not being utilized simultaneously by any of its current or
potential competitors. This competitive advantage will be
sustainable when the resources on which this strategy is based
cannot be duplicated. The review of the literature leads us to
believe that innovation is the main source of competitive ad-
vantage (Barney, 1991; Galunic & Rodan, 1998), and this will
be sustainable when it is based on strategic resources. These
statements could lead us to consider that imitations cannot
be a source of sustainable competitive advantage. However,
in this section of the paper, we argue that this is not so: we
believe that imitation, like innovation, can be a source of
sustainable competitive advantage, provided the company is
capable of designing a strategy that differentiates it from the
There is a wealth of literature explaining how to maintain
sustainable competitive advantages by developing barriers to
imitation (Barney, 1991; Kogut & Zander, 1993; MacMillan et
al., 1985; McEvily et al., 2000; Peteraf, 1993). Barney (1991)
stated that, for a resource to be strategic (and be a source of
sustainable competitive advantage), it must be valued, origi
nal, imperfectly imitable, and impossible to substitute. These
characteristics constitute barriers to imitation. Peteraf (1993)
stipulated that, for strategic resources to inﬂuence organiza
tional performance—that is, for the resources to be impossible
to imitate—they should meet four conditions: they should
be superior to those of the competitors (heterogeneity), there
should be ex ante limitations preventing competitors from
obtaining similar beneﬁts (imperfect imitability and irreplace
ability), the resources should be imperfectly mobile, and there
should be ex post limitations for the competitors. Daft (1983)
assumed that one of the conditions that makes a resource im
possible to imitate is that it should arise from the combination
of particular abilities, knowledge, and organizational learning,
and thus should exhibit causal ambiguity. Reed and DeFillippi
(1990) proposed that the tacit nature of knowledge, and the
complex and speciﬁc nature of the resources and capabilities
of a company, are the factors that generate the causal ambigu-
ity necessary to maintain the competitive advantages derived
from innovation over time. More recent studies, such as that by
McEvily et al. (2000), established that causal ambiguity pro
tects competitive advantages from imitation, but can increase
the vulnerability of the company to product substitution. In
other words, if the company establishes too many barriers to
imitation, it may motivate competitors to seek to satisfy the
same market need with different technologies that, if they
achieve better distribution, could succeed in substituting the
product or service introduced by the innovator. McEvily et
al., among others, explained that the company should deal
with this dilemma by identifying the reasons its innovation
generates more value and customer beneﬁts, and then use this
knowledge to get the customers committed to its product. In
this respect, those sustainable competitive advantages based on
innovations that meet the four requirements of Barney (1991)
will not be at risk because one of the conditioning factors is
the impossibility of substituting the product.
Rivkin (2001) carried out an extensive review of the lit
erature on the replication and imitation of knowledge, and
provided various factors that constitute barriers to imitation.
This author divided these barriers into four groups. In the
ﬁrst group, strategic maneuvers related to games theory were
analyzed, including spatial superiority, superiority in capaci-
ties, and the advantage obtained through the high costs that
customers would incur to change products. The second group
of barriers includes those related to the difﬁculty of access to
resources by the imitator. Examples of this category include the
lack of a recognized brand or of complementary resources, lack
of experience, the protection of patents, difﬁculty in accessing to
necessary materials and channels of distribution, and so on. The
third group comprises various impediments or organizational
weaknesses of the imitator, such as a limited absorptive capacity
(Zahra & George, 2002), poor motivation (Porter, 1985), the
lack of incentives, and the desire to preserve the scarce income
available. Last, there are barriers to the effective acquisition of
knowledge because of causal ambiguity (Reed & DeFillippi,
1990), the tacit nature of the knowledge (Polanyi, 1966), the
difﬁculty in codifying the knowledge (Zander & Kogut, 1995),
the complexity of the knowledge (Gopalakrishnan & Bierly,
2001), and so on.
Innovation and Imitation as Sources of Sustainable Competitive Advantage 79
In this study, we consider that the barriers identiﬁed by
Rivkin (2001) can be grouped into formal barriers to imita
tion, such as patents, and informal barriers, such as the spatial
superiority of the innovators. In turn, the informal barriers
can be divided into those derived from the superiority of the
innovator (the capacity for generating causal ambiguity, etc.)
and those derived from the weaknesses or lack of resources and
capacities of the imitator (poor capacity for absorption, etc.).
If the innovator company bases its innovation on a strategic
resource, it will be able to establish sufﬁciently strong bar
riers (formal or informal) to prevent being imitated; if it is
successful in doing this, neither the explorer nor the imitator
behaviors would be viable. This reasoning leads us to the next
Proposition 6: The establishment of barriers to imitation pro
motes the maintenance of the competitive advantage achieved by
the successful innovator, provided this innovation is impossible
Occasions can exist when a good strategy for the innovator
may be to promote imitations (Conner, 1995). The innovator
company must consider two elements before allowing itself
to be imitated. The ﬁrst is the potential beneﬁt to the innova
tor from the possible opening of additional markets that the
imitator may achieve. Occasions exist when the innovator
company does not have the resources and capabilities necessary
to launch its innovation on the market globally; it can be to
its advantage to permit other companies with greater distri-
bution capabilities to imitate and develop different markets
not accessible to the innovator. This beneﬁt is derived from
the increase in the number of potential customers following
the opening of additional markets. Another important factor
is that strengthening the presence of the new product in an
economy will help to establish it as the technological standard
and constitute an obstacle to the entry of possible competitive
products (McEvily et al., 2000). Against this possible beneﬁt,
a disincentive for the innovator to consider before permitting
imitators to appear is the possibility of losing sales because
of the imitation. The relative importance and weight of these
countervailing factors will depend on the power of the inno
vator and of the explorer (or imitator) and of the distinctive
strategy chosen by each company.
Some studies have attempted to identify the causes that
would permit innovators and imitators to obtain competi
tive advantages. In this context, Zhou (2006) attempted to
associate the loss of competitive advantage of the innovator,
in favor of the imitator, with characteristics of the particular
business environment such as the uncertainty or dynamism
of the market, technological turbulence, and the intensity of
competition. In that study, the author argued that the reasons
imitators might be able to gain a better position than the inno
vator are found in the instability of the demand (uncertainty),
the big changes taking place in the technology (turbulence),
and in the great number of competitors active in an industry.
However, contrary to expectations, his empirical study found
that these factors did not alter the competitive advantage of
To understand how the imitator can obtain sustainable com-
petitive advantages, we must return to the variables of timing
and space. It was proposed in P6 that the innovator (ﬁrst in
the world) will obtain competitive advantage if the innova
tion launched is valued, original, and impossible to substitute
(Barney, 1991; Daft, 1983; Peteraf, 1993). This competitive
advantage will be sustainable when it is imperfectly imitable
(Barney, 1991). In the event of being imitated, the innova
tor company will keep its competitive position—that is, the
imitation will be imperfect—if the copy is not distributed in
its market of reference or if it maintains distinctive features
that allow it to operate in the same geographic market but
in different customer segments (Lieberman & Montgomery,
1988, 1998; VanderWerf & Mahon, 1997). There is sufﬁcient
evidence to state that, in situations where imitation is possible,
the strategy chosen by the innovator to maintain its competi
tive advantage is the strategy of differentiation (Becheikh et
al., 2005; Beneito, 2003). Through an empirical study, Conner
(1995) demonstrated that a Nash equilibrium was reached
when the innovator follows a strategy of differentiation, and
the imitator a strategy of leadership in prices. Along these lines,
Adner and Zemsky (2006) demonstrate that innovators and
imitators can coexist viably in an economy, with both maintain
ing their competitive advantages, if the ﬁrst can successfully
differentiate itself and the second can successfully maintain
leadership in prices. Adner and Zemsky state that the innova
tor should maximize the resources that strengthen its product
and be very attentive to the timing variable, to maintain its
differentiation, and the imitator should aim to maximize the
resources inherent in its processes so as to be cost efﬁcient and
to secure its advantage on price. Thus, there is evidence to as-
sociate the maintenance of the respective competitive advantage
of innovator and imitator with a correct alignment between the
organizational resources and capabilities and the choice of the
appropriate strategy (differentiation or leadership in prices).
These considerations lead us to the next proposition.
Proposition 7: The innovator will obtain a sustainable com
petitive advantage based on an innovation if it maintains a
strategy of differentiation against the imitator, whereas the
imitator will obtain a sustainable competitive advantage based
on an imitation if it maintains a strategy of price leadership
against the innovator.
P7 concerns the situation in which there is a global in
novator and an imitator. That is, if the innovator is the ﬁrst
to launch a product, it will keep the advantage of being the
creative ﬁrm by a differentiation strategy, and its followers
80 Management Research
should focus on price leadership. The problem appears when
we take into account the explorer. This special type of imitator
adopts innovations developed by other companies in order to
introduce them into different markets.
The explorer company will be able to maintain a competi
tive advantage in its market if the product adopted (imitated)
is valued, original, and difﬁcult to substitute. This competitive
advantage will be sustainable if, in this particular market, the
product is imperfectly imitable. This company runs two risks.
On one hand, similar to the innovator, the explorer company
must be alert to possible imitators, against whom it must
follow a strategy of differentiation to establish its sustainable
competitive advantage (Becheikh et al., 2005; Beneito, 2003;
Conner, 1995). On the other hand, the original innovator may
decide to widen its target market and compete in the market
of reference of the explorer company; in this case, the explorer
must follow a strategy of price leadership. This is because,
although the explorer is the ﬁrst mover in the speciﬁc market,
it cannot compete with the innovator in terms of products,
because, as we explained before, the explorer does not have the
potential for developing product improvements. This leads us
to conclude that if the innovator decides to enter the explorer’s
market, it will have the potential to offer the best quality and
a differentiated product. This leads to the next proposition.
Proposition 8: The explorer will obtain a sustainable competitive
advantage based on a local imitation if it maintains a strategy
of price leadership vis-à-vis the innovator, and a strategy of
differentiation against future imitators.
In short, the innovator companies, the explorers, and the
strict imitators can obtain and maintain competitive advan
tages if the innovation or imitation is based on a strategic re
source and if the correct strategy is designed and implemented
(Martinez-Ros & Salas-Fumás, 2004).
FINAL REMARKS AND CONCLUSIONS
The primary objective of this paper is to contribute to the litera-
ture by conceptually delimiting the terms innovation and imita
tion. To this end, the features and characteristics of organizations
have been identiﬁed that enable those that adopt innovatory
behavior to be differentiated from those that opt for imitatory
behavior. Taking support from the existing literature on inno
vation, we have shown that variables such as idea generation;
delimitation of the space in which the innovation is launched;
timing, technological, and commercial risk; and the proactive
or reactive attitude of the organization are necessary to explain
and understand the terms innovation and imitation.
Taking as our point of departure the different orientations
that the stated variables may adopt or may involve, we have
argued that entrepreneurial companies are identiﬁed with in
novation, whereas those that focus on their existing market
and, more speciﬁcally, on their current competitors tend to
behave as imitators. The different positioning of companies
with regard to the factors of timing, proactive or reactive
attitude, and space has, in turn, allowed us to establish a
typology of innovative and imitative companies. To charac
terize these types of ﬁrms, we have incorporated the source
of the knowledge employed together with the degree of risk
(technological or market) that they are prepared to incur. The
combination of these factors has allowed us to identify ﬁve
types of company—radical innovators, incremental innovators,
mixed innovators, explorers, and strict imitators.
The principal contributions offered by the present study are
the following. First, a clear conceptualization has been obtained
for the terms
innovation and imitation, such that the division
between each can be drawn and explained. This contribution
is fundamental for the literature. A comprehensive analysis has
been made in the ﬁelds of innovation, imitation, and the lit
erature on leaders and followers. From this, we have concluded
that, although there are many studies, most lack a terminol
ogy for delimiting the terms. Because of this void, the results
obtained in the various empirical analyses are contradictory.
This ﬁrst contribution is complemented by the second—that
is, by the establishment of a typology of innovators and imi
tators. This categorization allows these behaviors to be made
speciﬁc and eliminates possible overlaps between types such
as the incremental innovator and the imitator, or the explorer
and the imitator. Together with the contributions already men
tioned, the identiﬁcation of factors that differentiate between
innovation and imitation and the typology of companies, a
third contribution is that relating to the reasoning of how an
imitator company can obtain competitive advantage. From
our analysis, we have been able to explain how innovation or
imitation do not necessarily make companies adversaries, but
can lead them to become allies in a market. Last, the work
contributes to the theory of resources and capabilities in that
it provides a terminology and typiﬁcation of behaviors that
should allow for empirical testing.
The principal limitation evident in this study is that, by
being theoretical in character, there is a need to test whether
the propositions that have been formulated are conﬁrmed in
practice. However, we are able to identify useful lines of re
search for the future and to make speciﬁc plans for undertaking
such research. Thus, the contributions mentioned constitute
a working basis for future investigations of the relationships
that, as stated, we consider are yet to be adequately explored
in the literature.
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