Are Niche Brands Asking the Right Questions?

I spent the past couple of weeks working on “niche brands”, and it had me thinking: why do some niche players do well (i.e. growth and profit) and why do some end up dead in the water? The more I thought about it, the more a hiking outfitter I am a patron of came to my mind.

For over a year, my hiking trips have mostly been with Trail Adventours, a family-owned travel company that specialises in hiking, camping, and general outdoors activities. In this time period, I tried three other outfitters. None of the three had repeat trips from me. I took a look at my own “consumer behaviour” with the eyes of a social marketer – and found three things Trail Adventours are doing right, and why small businesses should learn from them.

Fundamentally, nothing separates one brand from the other.

First, we need to look at this ‘niche category’. Niche brands are essentially small brands. They cater to a relatively small group of consumers and are not (yet), for one reason or another, appealing to the masses. Niche players are always going to be communicating to a smaller group of people to begin with, so bigger and more established players like Trail Adventours were always going to be tough to knock off their perches.

Let’s call this particular category the Hiking Outfitters. It’s a small world at first glance; hiking outfitters arrange trips for hiking enthusiasts or hobbyists such as myself. The first and biggest mistake of many of these Facebook-based ‘tour companies’ is to (in my eyes) assume that they are providing a niche service to a niche consumer base. This is simply not true.

The rest of the category, bar Trail Adventours and other bigger-name players, fail to realise that business growth for them comes from non-niche sources. They come from people who are not like me – the first-timers; the casual outdoorsman; the heartbroken; the New Year’s Resolution-er; the newly weds. When we see it this way, the door of potential market for Hiking Outfitters is virtually kicked open.

Second, we need to look at the importance of awareness. Awareness is either underestimated or completely ignored in this category, based on my year’s worth of observations.

There is a dangerous over-reliance on one to two platforms: a Facebook fan page, and/or a Facebook group. This isn’t ‘wrong’ per se; we are after all in “the Facebook capital of the world”. I feel that there are so many opportunities that go begging because the category is either far too enamoured with this one platform, or unable to make use of others.

Trail Adventours ranks pretty well on Search, almost always appearing in the top five results of a particular Philippine hiking destination. The links bring a visitor to their brand website, and while it leaves much to be desired (such as user experience, a better interface, spelling issues, etc.) they are one of the very few players in the game with a website to begin with!

Signing up also means the company coordinates with customers via email, and destinations, user content, and travel packages are promoted heavily via Instagram. Simply put, the diversification of digital assets help Trail Adventours be just that little bit more present than its competition.

To add to that, the brand has been featured numerous times on publisher sites such as WhenInManila.com (transparency: I’m the author of those articles) and Rappler.com.

It’s the brand message – and the brand messengers.

Third and finally, we need to look at brand talismans. At the heart of the business of the Hiking Outfitters category are just two products: the hike, trail, or mountain, and the service provided during the trip.

There isn’t a lot anyone can do for the first, while it’s far too easy to copy another with the second. Trail Adventours has exemplary service as their longevity and track records have proven, but this as a feature can be stolen readily should a competitor wish to.

The main differentiator for the company thus is the messenger of the two aforementioned products. The concept of a brand talisman is nothing new. We saw this with many previously-niche (smaller, challenger) brands: Apple (Steve Jobs), Nike/Jordan (Michael Jordan), and Virgin (Richard Branson), to name a few.

As a family-owned business, the company uses the public image of two of its owners well, the brothers Guido and Coby Sarreal. They position the two as both visionary business leaders and niche product experts. This approach should sound familiar; Larry and Sergey, anyone?

I don’t know for sure if these points are products of design from the Trail Adventours team, but from a social marketing perspective, they’re pretty brilliant.

Hack Sheet:

  • How do we compete with a big fish in a small pond? We either become a bigger fish (very hard) or we make the pond as big as possible (easier) and give the new audience of a bigger pond a compelling reason why we’re the better fish.
  • How do we get on the radar of as many people as possible? The beauty of digital is that it democratises the spread of information. Using just one, social, is a poor way of making the most of the technology available.
  • How do we inspire new and old consumers? The “Hero Effect” is real, in my opinion. If the what, how, when, and why are difficult to distinguish, then maybe the answer is the who. Maybe.

Bibliography:

  1. Brandt, R. (2012) “One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.com”.
  2. Isaacson, W. (2015) “Steve Jobs”.
  3. Levy, S. (2011) “In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes our Lives”.
  4. Sharp, B. (2010) “How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know”.
  5. Vise, D. (2008) “The Google Story”.

Transparency: Some of my hikes were generously sponsored by Trail Adventours but these gestures have never affected my reviews or my opinions.

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