Crain’s Cleveland Business feature article by Laura Sheridan: Why niche marketers win

You have great products or services but your results are disappointing. Is marketing the problem? Are you trying to be all things to all people? Is your messaging resonating with customers? Is your target audience seeing your advertising?

Are you targeting a mass audience when niche marketing is the answer?

Even successful companies that sell products with mass appeal often started by selling to a discrete audience.

Case in point: the rolling suitcase. Northwest Airlines pilot Bob Plath watched his colleagues drag their suitcases through busy airports and invented the Rollaboard. Before Plath’s invention, luggage was oriented horizontally.

In 1987, Plath designed a vertical bag with two wheels and an extendable handle that could easily be rolled through airports. Plath started selling them to pilots and flight attendants, and it didn’t take long for passengers to see the game changer product and ask airline employees where they could buy one.

Start niche. Go mass later. Once you have an established, delighted customer base that’s willing to endorse your product, then you can broaden your audience.

Done right, niche marketing stretches your marketing budget. No more wasting money trying to capture the attention of consumers who don’t find your product or advertising particularly relevant or will be slower to try it.

So how do you win big in a small market? Here are six steps.

Step No. 1 — Define your product or service: What are you selling? It’s a simple question that many new and established companies struggle with answering. Many companies develop extensive product offerings in an attempt to sell a lot to a broad market. While this approach may be successful for huge advertisers like Apple, Nike and L’Oreal, without significant consumer research and advertising budgets it’s challenging for smaller companies to succeed. Niche marketers can prune their product portfolios and focus on the “winners” for their target market.

Step No. 2 — Define your target audience: Segmentation is crucial to defining a smaller target market for your niche business. The smaller the target market, the greater opportunity you have to better understand and create a relationship with your customers.

It’s not enough to know basic customer information including age, income, marital status and geography. For example, does the niche offer an opportunity for an attractive return on your marketing investment? Determining the profitability of your target audience is key.

Step No. 3 — Tailor your message to your target audience: Think Lehman’s, the family owned and operated hardware store that offers “simple products for a simpler life.”

Founded in 1955 by Jay Lehman to serve the local Amish population, the single hardware store now ships simple U.S.-made products to more than 85 countries. Since its inception, Lehman’s has touted the same message, “we sell non-electrical products that are dependable and reliable.” It happily acknowledges that it sells “low-tech items in a high-tech world.” That’s not a message that resonates with everyone. However, it’s very attractive to their niche.

Step No. 4 — Hear your customers: Staying abreast of what your customers are saying about your products and your competitors is another important step in the niche marketing process.

Your customers’ words belong in your advertising. Their product comments, positive and negative, are invaluable inputs for product development. The beauty of niche marketing is there’s likely a blog, website, LinkedIn group, Instagram account, online forum and other online outlets where your customers are hanging. Find where your customers are and listen.

Step No. 5 — Tailor your marketing to your target audience: Don’t just assume that you can identify your niche and then do the same old marketing.

Traditional advertising campaigns don’t make sense for most niche markets. They’re too expensive, too difficult to target precisely enough and the messages are too general. There are entire product categories, such as craft beers, where most products are never advertised. Their marketers have learned how to use consumer-generated online content including reviews, ratings and customer feedback. Find where your customers are and start a conversation.

Step No. 6 — Test, refine and then test some more: Just because sales are up, profitability goals are being met and customers are happy, doesn’t mean you can coast. Consider every marketing program as a test. Consumers’ needs change. The media world is dynamic. A marketing campaign that worked yesterday may not work tomorrow.

Win big by targeting small. Pick the right product and the optimal audience and tailor everything you do for them. Spend your marketing dollars wisely by studying your audience and using their language in your advertising. Rollaboard did it and today 15 of Amazon’s 20 best-selling suitcases have wheels.

Go niche!
Laura Sheridan is president of Viva La Brand, a Cleveland-based brand and marketing strategy and ad agency search firm.

Laura Sheridan
Laura Sheridan, Founder & President of Viva La Brand has a proven track record of effective branding and advertising, spanning over twenty five years with some of the best in the business: Foote, Cone & Belding in Chicago; Hill, Holliday and Polaroid in Boston; and, Progressive Insurance and Viva La Brand in Cleveland. Laura founded Viva La Brand to offer large and small organizations alike strategic marketing expertise to catapult their visibility, growth and profitability. Viva La Brand develops effective brand strategies and conducts ad agency searches that successfully match clients with the optimal ad agency partners. Laura is proud to work with smart, innovative leader Brands in a wide range of industries from health care to manufacturing to technology and financial services. In addition to her work with clients, Laura is an author and speaker on all topics related to Brand.
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