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3. Why play it safe?

Seth Godin’s interesting comment on the changed world of marketing is that the formula that worked well in the past – go for the vanilla flavour, the volume popular product that appeals to the mass market, and create a really great advertising campaign to push it – does not work any more. I don’t quite remember the past ever being quite like that!

He says that in the new world you need to focus on a small market, a niche, because all the mass market positions are taken and strongly held, so that there is little chance of major penetration even with mega spending. Markets have been like that for a long time. Back in the 1960s the Japanese were penetrating the UK motorcycle market with little regarded small cheap bikes niche that later formed the base from which they pretty much wiped out the UK industry – based on the quality and reliability perception they had created.

All still big business stuff. But for small businesses, it is worth taking on Godin’s thought that playing it safe can now be the more dangerous strategy. He says that coming up with the different, the adventurous idea that appeals to a minority is now the safer route. The internet allows the niche to find you – whether from the quality of search engines or from the power of social and networking media. And it allows you to find them by being able to find groups with an interest which is relevant to your very different product. A lot of start-up businesses I see seem to want to be ‘all things to all people’ rather than really special too enough. This rarely works as ‘all things to all people’ usually means they are not special to anyone.

Seth gives an example in ‘The Purple Cow’ of the market for hot sauces where a whole sub-culture has developed, started by those with an interest in the esoteric (and painfully hot!) and then stimulated by the increasing availability of product as more entrepreneurs saw the opportunity for them to supply a demand and make money. I guess making money out of almost uneatably hot sauces is at the other end of safe marketing from mayonnaise and salad cream!

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