Friday, February 03, 2012

Marketing the Niche to the Mass

Marketing the Niche

By Harish Bijoor

The niche. By definition, a small wedge. A small corner even.

Marketing as a process is the ability of a marketer to take a product, a service or a concept and make it as mass as possible. Marketing to that extent of definition is a process that fulfills a latent human need, want, desire and aspiration. Marketing is therefore a process that takes what is not known at all, and gets it known by as big a mass of people as possible.

You can therefore take a carbolic soap such as Lifebuoy and make it as mass as it is today. You can really build a hierarchy of brands that reach out to consumers, from the mass to the niche. Take soap and the Indian market for instance. Right at the bottom of the pyramid is the mass segment. Put a red Lifebuoy in it. Just above it is the mid-premium segment. Put a Lux in it. Just above it, is the premium segment. Put a Dove into it. And right above that would be a niche offering. An offering for Pimples? Clearasil soap! A soap for men alone? Aramusk! And tomorrow a soap for folk who are lesbian and gay in their preferences?

This is the niche. The niche is always small. The niche is different. The niche is unique. The niche is boutique. The niche is all about that one salmon that swims against the tide. It is about that one offering in the market that is so unique that people will pay a good price for the offering, but there won’t be too many people partaking of the offer.

The niche is therefore that narrow wedge of marketing space that brands aspire to occupy not for the sake of volume, but for the sake of image and continued brand sustenance basis just that.

How does one market the niche then? What are the primary challenges? And what’s so different in approach from marketing a mass soap, a mass focused travel agency and a mass focused consulting practice for that matter like what the Big Four(or is the Big Two and a half now?) do.

Marketing the niche brand is firstly a labor of love. Niche brands emanate from small little gaps in the market. At times they are non-gaps even. These are small little gaps and non-gaps seen by evangelists. Evangelists who are reasonably tired of mass market offerings. Evangelists, who at times have themselves experienced lack of service, frustration and a complete lack of fulfillment. The consultancy practice that looks at a zero-solicit model of business, where there is no advertising, no touting of business formats, no participation in market pitches for accounts and no brochure and no detailed website is one such example.

The challenges then are three mainly.

1. There is no money to advertise. Might as well make a virtue of that. A non-advertised brand must be good, na?

2. Niche brands slip between the slats of public recognition. At times too much recognition can be the bane of a brand in public space. Niche is boutique.

3. Niche brands forever look maverick and small. And that’s an advantage in today’s world where everything big is considered that much less optimal in its service and delight delivery standards.

Two do’s and two don’ts:

1. Spruce up your brand image and be totally cutting-edge in what you offer. You need to be one step ahead of big competition. Remember, bigger organisaitons take much longer to change with their clients. Clients change faster than those who service them do!
2. Don’t open up those offices all over. Follow a policy of the small office home office in every location till you have a minimum 5 clients in the kitty. It is better not to open a new office at all than close all of them one by one!

1. Don’t over-promise and under-deliver. Clients and consumers are tired of this.
2. Don’t be glib and slick at all. Don’t follow the big guys in this game. Be real. Be genuine. Be sincere. You will stand out like a loved sore thumb!

Wait! Even as I tap this onto my laptop, it strikes me that I operate in a niche myself.

Here is some niche-'gyaan' then from what I painted for my business practice eight years ago as a private label consulting firm with no MNC-consulting tag to it. Best way to talk the language of the niche. Best way to explore the challenge of the niche. My personal one.

Consulting! Possibly the world’s oldest profession. Rivals the other one for sure! A name that used to bring a smile on my face before I actually jumped into it. I had dealt with the big names in the Consulting business for a while now during my previous stints with Levers, Tata Coffee and finally Zip Telecom. I knew many an Anderson, a McKinsey and an E&Y! I knew many of the smaller names as well. Many a salivating consultant who would network at the parties I attended wearing the corporate hat.

The term Consulting has both a positive and a negative feel about it. The positive is that which talks of stellar strategy that creates many an alliance, many a turnaround and a domain that has been responsible for creating a wealth of wealth!

The negative connotation is best typified in the joke doing the cocktail rounds of a consultant being an entity that gets into your organization, wants to meet the folks who work there, asks for your watch, looks at it keenly and tells you the time!

I have never wanted to be one of that kind. And blissfully I am not! The first thing I did as the bug to get into bed with consultancy got to me was that I did a thorough analysis of the turf at hand. Being a Market Research enthusiast all my life, I could do nothing better. I looked keenly at the inadequacies in the profession, and said I would never trample on the terrain in the same manner as many others have.

I defined for myself a USP. Two actually.

One: My consultancy will never solicit business. No presentations to clients, no networking at parties, no presentations, no pitches and no brochures and direct mailers at all! I have had enough of that staring back at me from the other side of the fence when I was a Corporate for 18 long years!

Two: My practice would focus on walking the talk. Talking the talk is just not enough. The consultant must tread the path of his strategy and see it to fruition. I therefore adopted the Build-Operate-Transfer basis of business many a super-highway contractor adopts in his trade. I will build strategy; I will operate it for the client as if I am his own resource for a year. At point of satisfaction, I will transfer the business to the client CEO! Gives the profession a great deal of credibility!

This seems to work. It has kept me busy. My four offices are busy as well.

As big consultancies break up with corporates suspecting value-propositions, niche boutique consultancies that focus on individual specialty domains will become the order of the day! Private-label consultancy is here! The terrain is ripe for many a new entrant. More the merrier.

Being a niche player is really an advantage today. If this is a David versus Goliath play, the consumer of the future is poised to look keenly at David. David is small. David is nifty. David is value-for money (most of the time). David is like me. Small, real and vulnerable. The consumer emotes with small. B2B, B2C or to B2M (Business to machine) marketing, small is still beautiful. Schumacher was right!

The author is a brand and business-strategy specialist & CEO, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc., a private label-consulting practice with a presence in the markets of Hong Kong, UK, Dubai and the Indian sub-continent. Email:
Modern retail Ver. 2.0: Shopper marketing!

By Harish BIjoor

Shopper marketing is possibly the most under-explored, and for sure the most under-exploited science of them all. Shopper Marketing is therefore the most efficient of them all tools that lie out there in the open market place for retailers to grab and run with.
The story of retail is an interesting one. Since retail is the oldest professions of them all, every retailer stepping into the terrain imagines it to be kid-play. Choose a location, set up a store, stock it well, brand the store, advertise, and wait for your customers to walk in and pluck inventory off the shelves. And you are running to the bank, laughing all the way!

Wish that were true. The cruel fact is that it is not. Modern retail of both the big and small kind is way different, and way more difficult than all that. Don’t we know by now?

In the old days, Shopper Marketing was not even a subject to bother about. The terminology was yet to be invented and made ubiquitous. And "old days" was just 5 years ago!
Those were the days modern retailers were excited about plucking the low-hanging fruit of opportunity in the sector. The subject of retail had a centricity of approach that was entirely different. The approach was clearly one where you focused on back-end efficiency. This was really Modern retail 1.0 where you worked out great deals with suppliers, you worked out pack-size options that you were going to stock, you worked out shelf-stocking norms, and you were ready.

Modern Retail 1.1 was all about location. You took the next logical step of scouting out a location that was killer in all respects. You did a quick 'thingie' with the demographics of the locality, local competition that was vulnerable, and if you were a wee bit savvier, you did a quick one on the psychographics of the folks who lived in that location. And you were ready. More or less. And most of the time, the Mall developer did all this home-work for you. All you needed to do was walk in with your ‘set-it-up-in-twenty-days’ store.

Version 1.2 of Modern Retail started depending on unique products your Modern Retail store could offer. Literally every super-market in the hinterland was offering the very same brands. Every super-market literally started looking like one another, except for the brand-name at the entrance and the ownership certificate you proudly had to display within the outlet at a prominent place for the Municipal authorities and the Shops and Establishments inspectors, and twenty others of their ilk, to examine when they did their visits.

In came the dealers’ own brands (DOB’s) in this phase of the development of Modern Retail in India. Every retailer vied with one another to have different sets of exclusive designer labels within their store, just as the 'dal-cheeni-chawal-atta” retailer tried to set up his own low-end private label brand. This was the differentiation at play.

And then came version 1.3. This was the phase where advertising took charge. The 30-second commercial on television was the big one to go with. The store had sorted out its back-end issues splendidly, the location had been laid out thoughtfully, the store had been designed to efficiency norms that were global, the private labels were all there, and business was still 'parri passu'. Time to re-invent then. Time to think of drawing in customers through mass media. Through discounts. Through deals. Through loyalty programs.

Version 1.3 became 'parri passu' a bit too soon. Every Tom, Dick and Harish retailer was doing the same thing all round. Everyone brought in advertising. Every piece of advertising started looking like the suitings’ ad of yore, where you could not distinguish one brand from another. Therefore, one chain helped another, and advertising of the 30-second type became a generic piece that worked for the category of Modern Retail, but did not quite do too much to the specific brand for sure.

Every retailer went a step further and offered the loyalty card. The loyalty card of one store became the disloyalty card of another. Loyalty degenerated to location loyalty rather than brand-loyalty, and stores bled on this count. Version 1.3 of Modern retail in many ways was totally experimentative, 'parri passu' and bled moneys that a retail outlet of any size and ownership pattern could ill-afford.

I do believe we are still going through this Version 1.3 of bleed-value. Modern retailers are all of a sudden realizing the true-blue merit of Shopper Marketing at last! As the high-hanging fruit of opportunity is all getting plucked by the host of 214-plus modern format retailers in the country, it is time for the real action to start. This action is in the realm of Shopper Marketing.

Version 2.0 of Modern Retail in India is about to kick-off then. This time round it is all about the most important link in them all: the shopper. It is time for insight building exercises that take you into shopper homes as you do wardrobe studies that tell you the exact number of ‘undies’ with holes in them. The exact number of lucky garments in the wardrobe and equally unlucky ones. The ones that make you fail in exams and the one that makes it rain heavily when you wear them even!

The world of insight into the shopper is getting more and more defined. Out of the window goes the 30-second spot, and in comes a focus on understanding the shopper holistically. And having done just that, time to put together Shopper-insight-geared offerings. Offerings that make your Modern Format retail chain that much more edgy and that much more buzzy than the shop next door.
Over to Modern Retail Ver 2.0 then: Shopper marketing.
Harish Bijoor is a brand-strategy specialist & CEO, Harish Bijoor Consults Inc., a strategy-consulting practice with a presence in the markets of India, Hong-king, Dubai, UK and Turkey. @harishbijoor