Pick A Niche and Own It

    February 25, 2005

Had a one-day branding session with a client yesterday. Small company, lots of potential. They wisely selected a niche market to target initially, because they’re in a crowded space.

So right now, they can say to prospective customers that they’re the only widget software designed to meet the needs of “x” market.

This is a terrific way for most businesses to get a loyal following: pick a niche and own it. Then pick another one. And another. (I wrote previously about this here and here.) BTW, this can’t be a marketing trick; your product really needs to be designed to meet the specific nuances of that niche. But the challenge is, you can’t build your company brand on being the ‘Niche X Widget Provider’ for two reasons:

  1. The 800-pound gorillas finally notice you and think, “Hey, that’s a great idea. We’ll do that too.” And they’ve got the resources to eat your lunch pretty quickly (or they buy you, which isn’t always a bad thing).
  2. You’re too successful, run out of customers in Niche X and want to adapt your product to Niche Y.

So you build your brand not on what you do, but how you do it. There will always be somebody else doing what you do. If not today, then just wait a couple months. I disagree with Al and Laura Ries; you can’t “own” a product category… but you can own a way of doing business. The computer industry is a great example of this:

  1. Dell makes computers. Big deal; so do a lot of other companies. But they’ve built their brand on how they do it. Customized and mail-order. Now, do they have to stick with computers? Not if they leverage their “how.”
  2. Apple makes computers. It’s their “how” that’s given them a cult following. It’s their “how” that they extended to the iPod. There are a lot of other music players out there. It’s iPod’s “how” that sets it apart.
  3. Gateway makes computers. How? Hmm… like everybody else. Oh, and they have something to do with cows. Once you pull off the cow suit, their products and service are pretty generic. This is why branding is the executive team’s job, not marketing. Marketing can work with customers to determine the opportunity in your space, but it’s got to be translated into an operational “how” before it’s turned into an ad campaign.

What is your “how?” Are you faster, better, cooler, more innovative? More connected with your customers? Or, asked another way, how do you inspire emotion in your customers? Do they feel liberated? Hip? Special? In control? Connected?

Own a “how” in your industry, and you’ll have a path for future growth as the market and competitive set changes.

Jennifer Rice is the founder of Mantra Brand Communication. She has extensive experience in brand/marketing strategy, market/customer research, integrated marketing communications and channel support.

Jennifer also writes theWhat’s Your Brand Mantra? blog which offers musings on branding, marketing and the ecology of business.