I’m in San Francisco this week, and was invited by Alice at Clorox to give a talk while I’m in town. My talk is titled “everything I needed to know about innovation, I learned by drawing cartoons” and one of my themes is the importance of finding a niche.
I once heard Mark Addicks, the General Mills CMO, complain that most positioning statements he read were way too broad. He described the target market of these briefs as “woman, age 25 – 49, with a pulse.”
By trying to blandly appeal to everyone, you wind up not really appealing to anyone in particular. Yet, in many companies, “niche” is a dirty word, right up there with “polarizing”. Concepts that feel too “niche” can get shelved, because the assumption is that they won’t appeal to the mainstream.
The world doesn’t need another blandly appealing mainstream idea. I think the real opportunity is to find a niche and give them something they will walk over hot coals to buy. Even if it’s polarizing. Especially if it’s polarizing. By giving something truly remarkable to a niche, the idea can still be appealing to a wide audience. But it needs a niche at the core. The mainstream is not a target market.
When I started drawing cartoons, I talked to a few professional cartoonists, and they all told me that my material was too niche, and I should find something mainstream like parenting and then send my material to newspaper syndicates and hope for the best. I played around with a parenting cartoon for a while and scaled back Brand Camp. And then, someone emailed me that he was really disappointed. He said there were a million parenting cartoons out there, but there was only one brand management cartoon.
So I decided to focus on a niche, and realized there are actually a lot of people in that niche. And there are even more people who may not be in that niche, but still like it. And, after focusing on a niche for a while, the cartoon somehow managed to grow. Just two weeks ago, the New York Times linked to one of my cartoons as part of a feature on the recession. I don’t think that would have happened if I’d only aimed wide at the start. I’d still be writing to syndicates hoping to get a shot at “the mainstream”.
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Rob Cottingham says
Thanks for this post, Tom – you’ve expressed something that’s been on my mind for a while.
When I started drawing Noise to Signal two years back, I was more than a little worried that not enough people would get it. And I consciously stifled cartoons that cracked me up, but felt too narrowly targeted to find an audience.
In fact, I started hearing from people who didn’t get some cartoons… but those were often the cartoons that got the biggest response from the people who DID get them. That’s led me to stop second-guessing myself – and for every truly baffling cartoon I’ve drawn, the ones that reach an audience of one (me), there’s at least one that found its mark with the smaller audience I draw for.
It’s not exactly relevant, but the story of Gary Larsen’s “Cow tools” cartoon always cheers me up: a cartoon that hardly anyone got convinced Larsen that The Far Side was doomed, yet wound up sparking a conversation that propelled him to a whole new level.
James Pardon says
This niche vs. broad appeal battle is one that I’ve watched with a lot of interest throughout my career. It made sense to keep the target pretty broad when working on a product that had about a 60% market share, but when working on a new variant in a category where very few SKUs managed to hit even 1%, it didn’t seem nearly as meaningful. I really enjoyed a manager I worked with once who talked about how he looked for the 90-10 loser product, as long as the 10% were really intense and highly unique. Even if you’d only managed to convert 1/10 of that group, it would have been a big player. Unfortunately, he often seemed to be a minority view…
Michael Katz says
Love this idea and your cartoon Tom. And I completely agree. The idea of a “wider potential market” is an illusion, since clients don’t select whom to hire based on a lottery. Standing out is what makes the difference. The best advice I ever got as a solo professional was that “you need to become the world’s leading expert in something.” Thanks for the reminder.