Christopher Lochhead is co-author with Heather Clancy of the new Niche Down: How to Become Legendary by Being Different and the Harper Collins “instant classic”: Play Bigger: How Pirates, Dreamers and Innovators Create and Dominate Markets.
Here’s an excerpt from the new book:
We stated previously: branding in the absence of category creation is bullshit.
Some evidence please? You got it.
Undeniably, Dell has a great brand in personal computers. And “back in the day,” Michael Dell was a celebrated entrepreneur.
Today no one cares.
Because the cloud, mobile computing, and virtualization categories made the personal computer category a mature, low growth, low-innovation category. And as a result, Dell’s brand doesn’t matter. Dell is the victim of category violence.
Someone else changed the agenda in tech and Dell “didn’t get the tweet.”
Categories Make Brands
Even category kings and queens have trouble treading on turf that others claimed before them. Google definitely has a legendary brand because it is the category king in search. It’s even used as a verb! But the Internet giant’s attempt to break into social-networking services in 2011 with Google Plus has been an epic flop.
That’s because Google tried to compete mano a mano against Facebook, which clearly wrote the rules of the category. Three executives and a major redesign later, the Google-Plus service stills exists and persists — and it has an impressive audience of 111 million users. That is, until you consider that Facebook is closing in on 2 billion.
Google’s legendary brand in search was of zero value when the company strayed out of its category and moved into Facebook’s. No wonder Google has all but retreated.
Look around your town, your city, your state and you’ll see this dynamic playing out all around you with businesses large and small.
Think of all the local gyms and fitness clubs that compete by discounting the heck out of their monthly fees, especially in January, when just about everyone has resolved to be a fitter, trimmer version of him or herself. Sure, those campaigns might net a few new members. But the hard, cold facts show that competing in an existing category is a race to the bottom.
If everyone says they are “better,” consumers get confused. They assume if everyone says they are “the best” at what they do, the only way to make a decision is to compare.
The first thing they compare is price. And that starts the race to the bottom. It’s like watching two prizefighters stand in the middle of the ring and pound the shit out of each other.
It might be fun to watch a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots-style fight, but it sucks for the robots.
Companies that compete with each other in the traditional ways end up destroying much of the margin and profit in the whole market category.
Why not instead design something unique, like a fitness club that caters solely to women with classes unique to their needs? Throw in daycare options for the moms in the crowd, and schedule the class times around school drop-offs and pickups, not just traditional work hours.
Or instead of opening a generic bakery, why not niche down and design a category you can own, like Dena Tripp and Debbie Shwetz, the co-founders of Nothing Bundt Cakes? When the ladies got started on their “side project,” there was no market or demand for a bundt-cake specialist.
They designed the category. They niched down.
Today they are the category queens of the bundt cake with over 250 branded Bundt bakeries nationwide.
Over the course of 10 years, a club called Ethos ruled the health-club niche in Heather’s New Jersey hometown. When the owner decided to close down the business, the long-time members quite literally went into mourning. And even though many scattered to different clubs after the doors closed, there are still frequent reunions organized by the ex-Ethos trainers and fitness staff. If a similar club emerged to recapture that niche, you can bet that community would notice.
Similarly, you’ll have to wait at least six months to get inked by Christopher’s tattoo artist Jeremy Swan of Broken Art Tattoo.
“I started my tattoo career in the beautiful Monterey Bay,” Swan told a local newspaperI worked in that area for 11 years, and I wanted to make the move to a larger city. San Francisco was an option, but there were an overwhelming number of fantastic artists there. I loved LA, and in 2003, I started making weekend trips to tattoo here. My clientele was growing, and every time I came down, there was a longer list of people to tattoo on the next trip. I felt like I could really make a mark on this city — figuratively and literally.”
Translation, Jeremy saw an opportunity to be a regional category king.
San Francisco was saturated when it came to the skills and services he had to offer. He intuitively understood that he needed to stand out.
So, Jeremy niched down.
Down the coastline, that is.
By making that move, he niched down himself to become one of the top modern tattooers in LA, ultimately gaining fame on the television show “America’s Worst Tattoos” on the TLC Network, where he works his magic to turn disaster-pieces into masterpieces.
Here’s the thing.
Your audience is inundated with up to 60,000 brand messages every single day, and it has become really good at tuning out the useless, irrelevant stuff. You can scream your name at us, but if we don’t understand the context your brand lives in, we’re simply going to ignore you.
And here’s the truth about the life: You can either position yourself or get positioned.
Sure, it might mean you might have a narrower potential audience — as in the case of the all-female fitness club Ethos or the bundt-cake bakers. But, it will engender ferocious loyalty.
You lead, they follow.
TimeOut,“Time Out With Tattoo Artist Jeremy Swan of Broken Art Tattoo,” April 24, 2014.