Don’t Let Your Startup Go to the Dogs: 5 Steps to Sniff Out Your Niche

  • Darshan Mehta
  • September 18, 2017

Quick — name your company’s competitive edge.

If you said “price,” get back in the kennel and try again.

It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. Unless you bite off a niche for your business, you’re about as likely to succeed as a mutt at Westminster. Slight differences in product features or marketing won’t cut the kibble, either. You need to think like Pedigree and snap up a serious emotional niche.

In 2007, Pedigree launched “Dogs Rule,” a campaign to benefit shelter dogs. Its promise? Pedigree would donate funds from every purchase to get pups placed in loving homes so they could, as Pedigree’s corporate VP of marketing put it, “do an enormous amount of good for society.”

Unsurprisingly, pooch owners did the consumer equivalent of a heartfelt tail wag: They bought so much Pedigree food that, once the company crunched the data, it found that its advertising effectiveness had jumped by 40 percent.

Howling for Different

Consumers don’t slobber all over themselves for a product they practically already have. If you want to perk up their ears, you need a long-term strategy that begins with an honest-to-goodness niche. Spend time developing it now, and your business will be 25 percent more likely to be around in a decade.

Stuck on where to start? I’ll throw you a bone:

1. Dig into your customers’ buying process.

Every customer takes a journey prior to buying your product. Uncover this map, and you’ll start to smell the niche that’s missing in the market.

For a children’s clothing retailer we recently worked with, that niche was early-morning shopping. Through focus groups, we discovered that the client’s best would-be patrons ate breakfast next door. While in the neighborhood, they wanted to shop, but the store didn’t open until 10 a.m. Simply by opening the store a half hour earlier, the retailer paid for its consumer research in a single week.

2. Nose around for your customers’ values.

Walmart and the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals have developed a Miracle Balloon campaign. Starbucks now partners with (RED) World AIDS Day. Warby Parker offers “Buy a Pair, Give a Pair.”

What do those companies have in common? Each realized that people want to feel like they’re part of something greater. Each is now gaining market share because it matched its values to those of its customers in a public, philanthropic way.

3. Bark at the right people.

Yesterday’s car salesmen turned straight to the man when pitching to a couple. Why? Nobody had done the legwork to realize that women were typically the decision makers.

As soon as some car dealers realized they needed to speak to buyers of both genders, their sales skyrocketed.

The lesson? If you’re not getting traction, your messaging might be reaching the wrong ears. Find out who has the final say among your audience, and tailor your marketing to them.

4. Scratch the deepest itches.

Every customer has a pain point — that “thing” that annoys or frustrates her. Rid her of the flea for good, and you’ll have won a loyal customer.

When Michael Dubin launched Dollar Shave Club in 2012, he hit upon a niche itch that even Gillette had missed. Men wanted great blades at low prices, and they’d pay to have them delivered. Dollar Shave Club became top dog because it listened, learned, and responded to its customers.

5. Give plenty of tummy rubs.

Apple treats its customers like a doting dog parent. It’s thought of everything, from great user interfaces to sleek hardware to sexy packaging. Is Apple the cheapest of its peers? No way. People gladly pay more because Apple gives them what they want.

If you want to improve profit margins, focus on delighting customers. Don’t try to win the budget battle. Find out why people buy, and then mirror that reason in your product.

Your business is its own breed. Pretending it’s any other is like trying to pass off a bulldog as a Great Dane. In the immortal words of Oscar Wilde, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

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