Being Niche and Commercially Successful can go hand-in-hand
Niche brands no longer operate in the shadows of large corporate firms—a vacuous cultural climate in which consumers seek meaning and authenticity, means that a niche offering can unite likeminded people through a shared interest. In contrast to large establishments that often market for mass appeal, independent companies with a focused proposition can unexpectedly benefit from increased customer loyalty and a sense of community. In the fashion sector the rise of independent designers and retailers within the Artisanal/Avant-Garde niche satisfies an obsession for all things meaningful and handmade, in contrast to mass produced factory made pieces found in luxury retailers owned by major conglomerates.
Predominantly, the search for authenticity drives people away from ubiquitous brands which are often gazed upon with skepticism, instead igniting an interest in niche brands that project a distinct personality. Mulberry’s 2013 attempt to target the international mainstream proved too much for it’s core consumer base and alienated a large proportion of its UK customers. The brand’s previous strength was it’s niche identity as a luxury leather goods brand with a reliable offering and a stable grounding in it’s Somerset HQ. The brand’s message became confused as it tried to replicate the strategies employed by it’s Italian and French competitors.
Standing by your initial philosophy as your niche brand grows can create a consumer base that is more loyal and more longevous. Growing Italian leather footwear brand and tannery Guidi thrives on a mysterious identity and industrial heritage that gives way to an exclusive 'insider’s' community—creating a refuge for those who celebrate the brand’s values of craftsmanship, personality, and meaningful fashion. Guidi’s pieces aren’t for the season, but rather a pair of shoes for life. The brand’s parallels with the Slow Food Movement exemplify how it is antithetical to countless fast-fashion chains, allowing Guidi to form a space where those who reject mass-fashion can come together thus forming its own subculture. It is the ability to cultivate a personable community and a culture that allows niche brands to be commercially successful, whilst staying true to the philosophy which made them niche in the first place.
It would be easy to say that when market trends around authenticity and craftsmanship become oversaturated, niche fashion brands would struggle to compete with the large multi-nationals. But, ironically in a digital age that is meant to connect us all more than ever before we feel the loneliest. The ability for end-users to discover a sense of belonging and connectedness to a meaningful cause isn’t likely to be just a passing trend—niche brands that cultivate a community around their identity continue to hold their ground because they can better leverage an emotional bond that their audiences affix to the brand meaning that their narrow offering sustains.
By focusing on the appeal of the masses a niche brand can lose any appeal it initially had.
Feeling like a member of the cognoscenti speaks to a contemporary fashion audience, who have become increasingly interested in niche fashion brands. Paradoxically, it is the process of discovery and earning a place in a community that feels like an ‘underground find’ that creates exclusivity in an inclusive way, in fact this isn’t an area reserved for the niche. Those who join the cultural movements created by niche brands feel part of an exclusive club of the well-informed, simultaneously feeling a sense of inclusivity and connectedness with those who share their particular interests.
That is not to say, that niche brands don’t call for branding or strategic communications. The deceptively organic and effortless culture that drives once niche brands such as Aesop is tactfully curated. The crux of cultivating an end-user culture is creating brand meaning that draws on emotions, and a space in which consumers can connect with those who are likeminded. People don’t become attached to a product, they become attached to how a brand makes them feel. Niche brands’ selective offering allows them to thrive on clearly marketing a curated lifestyle and a culture, as opposed to just a product—however, this doesn’t mean that they pay any less attention to branding and communication strategies than large firms do. Often having a limited appeal can open more marketing doors than it closes.
The effortless culture that drives once niche brands such as Aesop is tactfully curated.
A niche proposition calls for a considered approach to brand communications. Paramount to a niche brand’s communications approach is respecting its narrow offering and original philosophy. As opposed to a business with mass market appeal whose brand meaning can be forged through branding, a niche brand’s value often extends from its selective proposition. As such their audiences, who are brought together by the businesses’ focused offering are likely to be discerning. Not only of the selection on offer but also how brand identity is curated on many levels from visual merchandising to its digital touchpoints.
Getting to know your highly nuanced audience is a start, next is deciphering the most appropriate communication channels to connect with them. When presented with a niche brand who has a discerning audience, a one-size-fits-all approach misses the mark. For example, some focused businesses benefit from sculpting an inclusive atmosphere setting a relaxed tone and relationship, whilst others can garner an almost cult-like following by crafting an air of mystique and exclusivity around their brand identity [See Carol Christian Poell et al.]
A niche proposition or unusual offering can naturally spark emotional associations in consumers, but can be furthered by utilising the passionate connection they have with your brand and what you say. This can take the form of visual prompts such as curated imagery and moving image, as well as experiences which involve designed spaces that encourage interactions both in the digital and physical realm. Being niche could be your strongest suit and with careful strategy and strong tactical implementation you can propel your brand into the next stage of it’s evolution.