Discussions sometimes seem to weave through time like long strands of gold, looping, intertwining and crossing at the most unusual and surprising times. It’s a reminder that rarely is their original thought but rather a repurposing of an old idea, or theme, into the current context. Indeed, this isn’t an original thought itself: I doff my cap to the late and truly great Terry Pratchett; in fact his character, Granny Weatherwax in ‘Witches Abroad’, “This is called the theory of narrative causality and it means that a story, once started, takes a shape. It picks up all the vibrations of all the other workings of that story that have ever been. This is why history keeps on repeating all the time”.
So it was recently when an ex Ad Agency suit who I worked with years back reminded me of the ‘concept’ of ‘Mass Niche’ which I had coined, apparently. Well, I wasn’t about to do myself the disservice of denying it and actually I do remember it. It was born out of a desire to develop the brand we were working on with a seriously distinctive point of view, tone of voice and stand out from our immediate competitors. It was a desire to be brave and go where the bigger, more institutional brands couldn’t or wouldn’t…. but with scale. Hence, ‘mass niche’.
Mass niche. Yes, it’s an oxymoron, that’s where the appeal as a construct lies. But is it a paradox: can it be solved? Is it a useful way to think about what brands need to achieve distinctiveness and engagement? Essentially, can a brand deliver a ‘mass niche’ positioning – for this is what my colleague was searching for?
We played verbal table tennis. Which brands are mass niche? Pret á Manger perhaps: operating in a seriously crowded and competitive market, yet idiosyncratic with strong brand integrity. Mini? A car with bags of cheeky personality. Waitrose, or Aldi, clearly standing for something different – both from one another and also the middle of their market. We hotly debated Peroni: a brand which so successfully established its ‘niche’ by partnering with Italian restaurants, but has pushed out and beyond since then, whilst staying true to its stylish Italian roots.
But the truth is, these just felt like well positioned brands. Recognisable, built around a product truth, distinctive in some way with their positioning.
Is there a difference then? Well a ‘niche’ is either a nook, cranny or recess – something that offers shelter – or it’s a position of great fit: round peg, round hole, that sort of thing. No definition implies ‘small’ although this is often assumed. With this in mind, niche brands do seem to have a number of points of difference.
Firstly they create the niche. They lead, back a hunch or belief early on. Sustainable, defensible niche brands have the knack or serendipity of getting behind a trend before it becomes dominant, mainstream. Or put better perhaps, they often help a trend in belief or behaviour emerge. Brompton bikes are a great example: they didn’t invent folding bikes, but their founder Andrew Ritchie saw not only the poor design of existing folding bikes (they fold but were difficult to carry or poor to ride) but also the potential of the folding bike to contribute towards revolutionising personal transportation, particularly in urban environments. Interestingly, despite their profusion in London, most Bromptons are exported today. This is all fine in retrospect, but it’s it worth remembering that it takes serious belief, luck and capital (or at times, lack of): the Brompton story started over 30 years ago.
Secondly, niche brands have more than functional defence built in to their make up. Critically, they are founded off, publicise and stay true to their founding beliefs, particularly and especially later when they become fully or part purchased by a new owner. In the U.S. Anchor Brewing Company was a pioneer of today’s craft brewing movement. The owner, Fritz Maytag was fresh out of college, finding his feet and wondering what to do with his life. He bought Anchor because he liked it and heard it was closing. And it was brewing the sort of beer he liked to drink and unlike the beer brewed by the major corporations. Those principles remain true today (with a new owner since 2012), and in fact Anchor remains proudly (and deliberately) a relatively small business.
Thirdly whereas many brands, including those deemed strong by most consumer measures generally have a look that is instantly recognisable, niche brands seem to treat their design with much more reverence and sensitivity. Not that long ago, a long established bric-a-brac store shut down in a nearby town when the owner retired. In the closing down sale was an old Colmans mustard sign, by the look of things, probably from outside a shop or railway station. The yellow, although with some patina of age, the bull and the logo are just as recognisable today. This brand of course, remains the benchmark in feisty English mustard and very much an English fabric brand.
But, the lines between these points and simply well positioned brands are slight. No, the true ‘nicheness’ comes from the way the brand controls the agenda of ‘the battle’. If you’re in a niche then attack is difficult except from the front: and that’s where the mass niche brand is strongest. A bit like the Rohirrim holing themselves up in Helms Deep in The Lords of the Ring, The Twin Towers. Fight OK, but you will fight on my terms.
Apple own stylish technology that fits with everyday life. Benefit Cosmetics own glamour. Agent Provocateur owns sexy femininity. Chicago Town own deep pan pizza.
So what is mass niche? Well positioned, yes. But narrow in their focus too with deep, deep principles. It may seem a slight difference, but it’s a niche worth fighting for.
David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps brands find a direct route to long lasting success. email@example.com; +44 (0) 1283 295100; www.thecrowflies.co.uk; @crowflieshigh.