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:
In the movie “There’s Something About Mary” there is a scene during which the Ben Stiller character picks up a crazed hitchhiker — played by the legendary comedian Harland Williams.
As the vignette plays out, Williams’ would-be entrepreneur enthusiastically pitches his captive audience his can’t-miss business idea: a “7-Minute Abs” video that he is convinced will outsell the popular “8-Minute Abs” workout.
A no-brainer, right? Right?
A skeptical Stiller responds with: “That’s good — unless, of course, somebody comes up with ‘6-Minute Abs.’ Then you’re in trouble, huh?”
At which point the hitchhiker and would-be entrepreneur starts convulsing in the passenger seat, dismayed by the wake-up call that all but banishes his dream.
Here’s the reality: Many solopreneurs and startups are positioning themselves to become “7-Minute Disasters,” just like Harland’s character.
That may sound like a harsh observation, but think about it. Most people and most businesses are building entire companies on go-to-market plans that attack an existing market category with a strategy of “we’re better.”
They spend their lives competing in a game they can’t win, instead of having the courage to create their own game.
Pepsi just well might be the most tragic, quintessential example in history of the 7-Minute Loser blunder.
It made a multi-billion-dollar mistake by running ads comparing itself to Coca-Cola. “The Pepsi Challenge” proclaimed to the world that Pepsi’s cola tasted better than Coke. Go on, try us side by side, the marketers urged. All this campaign did was reinforce Coke’s leadership position, its unique market-category leadership.
After decades of cola category wars, Coke is still No. 1.
Even neighborhood pizza joints suffer the same fates when they compare themselves to rivals.
In the five square miles surrounding the village in Northern New Jersey where Heather makes her home, there are literally 30 restaurants that sell some sort of dough-covered-with-cheese-and-other-stuff — and that’s just the ones that market themselves online.
Most of these establishments are tossing some sort of twist on the “New-York style.” But there is just one that specializes in wafer-thin-crust pies that are totally unlike the fare you find at your average pizza parlor anywhere else in the state, or the country for that matter.
It’s called Nellie’s Place, established back in 1989 by Irish immigrants (you don’t need to be Italian to “own” an Italian food category!) and still a vital part of community.
The rest of Nellie’s menu is actually pretty ordinary. You go there for the pies (don’t bother buying the small one because you’ll look like a lightweight) and the Irish draft ales.
You’ll often wait an hour for the privilege of finding a seat. Nellie’s doesn’t deliver, but it’s usually flooded with takeout orders. If you don’t like thin-crust pizza, don’t go there. Call one of the other 29 or so places that are competing on price or on the promise that they will beat a path to your doorstep a few minutes quicker than the other guys.
Sure, some of those other pizza joints do sell thin crust as a menu option ‘cause it’s a Jersey thing, but Nellie’s is the name you remember on Heather’s dead-end street.
Nellie’s wins by offering different pizza, not better pizza.
No matter where your company is located or how big it is, when you position your business or yourself as “better” than some other option, you are invading someone else’s queendom. You are fighting for attention, messaging your mission according to someone else’s rules — a person or business that your customers already know.
You’re playing a comparison game.
And when two people say, “I’m the best,” by definition one is lying.
Making it worse, the game you’re playing is a game invented by someone other than you. They set the agenda in the minds of the category. Not you. They frame the problem. They educate the world on how to solve the problem and what the product or service is worth. So, you will always be compared to “them.”
We are begging.
Please don’t be a “7-Minute Disaster.” Don’t compete on someone else’s terms.
Instead, design your own market category. Become known for a niche you can own. That way, others will follow you. Others will be compared to you versus you being compared to others.
That’s a good thing.
If you are open to soaking in the ideas that we present throughout this book, you’ll gain real insights into how to be crowned category queen or king. The person who solves a specific problem in a unique way. The person who changes people’s thinking with a different point of view. The person who makes their own place in the world. The person who makes a giant difference in a given category.
The person who captures outsized earnings.
Be Different, Not Better
It doesn’t matter whether your objective is to mold a professional-services business on your own or to build a small venture that employs others who believe in your mission. Designing a unique and distinct category niche is the biggest step that any entrepreneur — whether she is going it alone or leading others — can take towards successfully carving out territory in the minds of the audience she wants to attract.
It comes down to leveraging the exponential value of what makes you or your venture “different”rather than leaning on the incremental value of what makes you “better.”
There’s no such thing as a business that exists in a vacuum. Here’s proof from the restaurant world.
If we say to you, “Let’s go to Gabriella’s for dinner!” your logical response might be, “What type of food does it serve?” When you ask that, what you’re really asking is, “What category of restaurant is Gabriella’s?”
In any buying decision, humans need to know the category first, then they’ll consider the brand second. It’s how we make sense of the world.
Person A: “Want a piece of gum?”
Person B: “What kind of gum is it?”
Person A: “Honey, can you pick up some Scotch on the way home?”
Person B: “What type of Scotch would you like?”
Category first, brand second.
Examples are all around your neighborhood, your slice of the world.
Nursing a cavity? Need to have your teeth cleaned? You have to know what a dentist is and believe he or she solves an important problem before you start shopping for one. And dentists intuitively understand that people shop category first and brand second.
That’s why almost every dental sign you see in America says in BIG FONT, “DENTIST” and in small font, “Jane Jones, DDS.” Dentists instinctively understand — category first, brand second.
Your No. 1 goal on the path to legendary is to achieve a unique position, one with which your brand can become synonymous.
Imagine being so respected in your field that other people who do similar things are compared to you, because you are the category queen — the leader in mindshare.
Examples are everywhere.
Take legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, born Cassius Clay.
You could describe the heavyweight champion as a great athlete and he was, holding several records for close to four decades and topping rankings by Sports Illustrated and the BBC. But the real reason Ali occupies such a unique piece in people’s hearts and minds is that he created his own category — he was the original social-activist athlete.
Ali wasn’t afraid to use his voice at a time when others in his position usually deferred to their managers.
Ali was the first athlete to take a very public stand for civil rights and social justice — refusing to be drafted into the U.S. military in the mid-1960s, citing both his religion (he converted to Islam) and his objection to the Vietnam War.
Ali’s status as champion kept him — and these issues — in the spotlight during the five years he fought his draft conviction, eventually winning an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971.
Even though he was stripped of his titles and banned from the sport he loved during the prolonged legal battle, Ali was often dead center in the ring of public opinion, for good and for bad. His return to the ring was relatively seamless as a result. That’s why Ali transcended boxing and became a category king, the person to whom all other “combat athletes” are compared.
Isn’t that just good branding, you ask? No. It’s not.
Quite bluntly, branding in the absence of category creation is bullshit.
Christopher Lochhead hosts the acclaimed dialogue podcast “Legends & Losers.” A former three-time, Silicon Valley public company CMO (Mercury Interactive, Scient and Vantive), he’s been called a “godfather of category design.” Christopher is living happily ever after in Santa Cruz, California, with a wonderful woman, six hens and two feral cats. He can often be found surfing, drinking whiskey or having a very good time.
Heather Clancy is an award-winning journalist specializing in transformative technology and innovation. Her articles have appeared in Entrepreneur, Fortune, The International Herald Tribune and The New York Times. She was the launch editor for the Fortune Data Sheet, the magazine’s newsletter dedicated to the business of technology. As editorial director for GreenBiz.com, Heather chronicles the role of technology in enabling clean energy, sustainable business strategy and the low-carbon economy. When she isn’t writing, you can find Heather digging in her garden in Northern New Jersey, singing a cappella or scuba-diving with her husband.