Whereas the word brand often seems like a spiritual invocation, in many marketing circles the word niche is often spoken with derision and used as a put down.
As far as niche goes, perhaps the most egregious errors of judgement were made in the technology marketplace of the late 90s, when niche became a curse you placed on any idea you wanted to kill or competitor you wanted to insult. Niche companies just weren’t going to make it. Niche start-ups just weren’t going to get the needed venture capital. Niches were for small-time players, the fearful, people with limited vision.
Well, I have always loved niche brands, never forgetting that bigger can indeed be better, particularly in the old economy. Needless to say, however, the Web has changed the way we think.
In 2006, Wired Editor Chris Anderson published The Long Tail, which highlighted how universal Web access meant that even the most thinly sliced niches could still add up to significant business when physical restrictions were taken out of the equation. For example, part of the dominance of big media content has always been physically derived: Limited space on a television channel or with a cable operator. Limited space on your local cinema screen, in a video rental store, in a music store or on a bookshelf. By comparison, digital distribution, universal access and search tools have created unlimited usable space, which has begun to make for an absolutely fascinating media marketplace that will become even more compelling in the years to come.
Niche brands understand the “position narrow, catch wide” axiom of brand strategy. They have built a limited, but fervent following first. They own their segment and enjoy the higher margins that general accrue to smart niche marketers. It’s not a bad place to stay.
Yes, it’s true, businesses are, as the cliche goes, like sharks: If they stop moving forward, they’ll die. But moving forward and getting big are two very different things. Who says you need to be big? A VC will if you’re a start-up, which is why many of those VCs are fully responsible for killing businesses that would have survived their first downturn if they had been rigged to run in niche-mode rather than artificially scaled to run big. Once you’re publicly traded, the street will demand top-line growth- until you teach your shareholders to invest in your consistent profitability rather than your explosive growth.
Owning a highly profitable niche is a thing to be celebrated. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that it is a natural and evolutionary step to move out of that niche and compete on a larger and more competitive stage. For now, at least, you may be much better off staying just where you are. Also, keep in mind that several focused and successful niche plays might well offer the better path to higher revenue, higher margins and less risk exposure than one big, broad play.
Large packaged goods companies offer wonderful lessons about niches. Each year entrepreneurial start-ups create niche products that, either slowly or very quickly, build a loyal and passionate following. Once they get “big enough,” they are acquired by a larger packaged goods company in that category. Interestingly, if that same very successful idea had originally been created within the larger, acquiring company, it would have been deemed too small (or niche) to warrant the investment necessary to take it to market. Often, there isn’t the passion and patience in larger companies to build a niche brand, but there does seem to be the money to pay for that brand once it’s an independent success.
Case in Point:
In my early days of marketing at Kellogg’s, I once sat in a meeting and watched chairman Bill LaMothe get a hard sell on the idea of getting Kellogg’s into the manufacturing of private-label cereal.
He replied, categorically, that they would never do that on his watch. He believed that companies and manufacturing facilities could only accommodate one level of quality. If Kellogg’s were to attempt to make both high and low-quality cereal within the same factory, ultimately both would work their way to the middle. What would Kellogg’s stand for then?
LaMothe was happy to pass up a short-term opportunity to preserve the long-term health of his company. He also passed up a number of opportunities to diversify Kellogg’s through acquisition, taking a lot of criticism from analysts until all those other CPG acquisitions flopped. Bill LaMothe was a visionary. He knew Kellogg’s and its niche better than anyone alive, and the company is so much better today because of the revenue-limiting decisions he made along the way.
Remember, there’s nothing wrong, and a lot of things right, with truly excelling at one thing. Thinking small can actually be the best path to a big result.
Stop back in, next week, as Austin delves into the Joys of Disruption