When I was growing up my older brothers and I used to finish our meals as quickly as possible in the hope of getting some of the food from my younger brother’s plate. Once we had eaten our dinner we would intently watch him eat every mouthful, silently willing him to put down his cutlery and finish his meal. Whenever he did leave some food we would collectively pounce on his plate and fight for the scraps that remained.

There is an old English word for our behaviour of silently and longingly staring at someone else’s food in order to be offered it: it’s called groaking. And it’s not only greedy, adolescent schoolboys who groak. Many business executives look longingly at their competitors, wanting what they have. In particular, they look to copy the market leader in a bid to enjoy a bit of their meal.

Corporate groaking (you might call it competitive benchmarking) results in competitors becoming pale imitations of the #1 player. In the UK coffee shop market, chains including Café Nero, Costa, Eat, Coffee Republic, Coffee Primo, Café Ritazza and other local cafes were established in the hope of enjoying some of Starbucks’ success.

The problem for the challengers is that in most markets it is only the leading players that make meaningful returns. It is the leaders that occupy the biggest share of buyers’ attention and spend. Unless something dramatically different comes along that is clearly better than their current provider potential customers will be unlikely to notice ‘me-too’ suppliers.

By seeking to copy the leaders, these challengers end up fighting over scraps in much the same way as I did with my brothers. It is unsurprising that several of the players in the coffee shop market have either performed poorly or even ceased to trade.

© Stuart Cross 2010. All rights reserved.