A mass-niche strategic brand positioning can be a potent way for a professional services firm to stand for something distinctive in a crowded market.
However, identifying a mass-niche brand positioning – as opposed to simply a niche positioning – requires sophisticated market analysis and genuine determination on the part of the firm’s leadership team to set and maintain a tight strategic focus.
Stand for to stand out
The main features of a mass-niche brand positioning are:
Firstly, it must be and appear to be extremely focused, with all the accompanying client benefits of specialization – market-leading expertise, cross-fertilization of knowledge, and deep experience.
Secondly, the market niche must offer massive innovation, growth, and profitability opportunities. This is the most challenging part because it means spotting a market opportunity before it fully materializes.
Third and finally, the niche specialism should ideally have perceived halo-effect benefits in the market (i.e., the market is likely to believe that being extremely good at A implies that you will also be excellent at B, C, and D, even if they’re not your specialist subject).
Apple is the obvious poster child for successfully adopting a mass-niche strategic brand positioning with its focus on ‘insanely great products’. Despite being the most valuable company in the world, Apple still manages to position itself as a niche brand. The iPhone accounts for only 15% of the global market in terms of sales but earns roughly 75% of the entire global market’s profits.
Very early on, Apple decided to only focus on the very high end of the markets it operates in. That’s the niche part. What makes it a mass-niche is that these markets have grown massively over the years, enabling Apple to grow and grow without proliferating products or going downmarket to find more sales. The third part, admittedly discovered slowly at first, is that superior design and user experience have a halo effect that Apple can transfer from computers to phones and then to tablets and watches.
A niche doesn’t have to be a sector or a discipline, but it does have to exist in the ‘mind of the market’ – you can’t simply imagine it into existence. This applies to all brand positioning strategies but it’s essential to take care with a mass-niche concept not to try to fudge it by leaning on what you do already rather than what the market perceives to be credible.
For example, whether fair or not, the market has preconceived ideas about the benefits of ‘German engineering’ that don’t apply to other nationalities. ‘Italian engineering’ doesn’t have the same credibility as a positioning in the minds of many consumers – even if they buy products made in Italy. On the other hand, ‘German fashion’ doesn’t convey the same positive positioning that ‘Italian fashion’ does.
In real life, it’s never as simple as this, but the principle is vital to remember when assessing the pros and cons of various mass-niche positionings.
A quick look at a few other highly successful mass-niche strategic brand positionings helps illustrate the model.
Tesla’s mission is to “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy” – mainly via electric cars. Electric is still a niche, albeit growing, segment of the global car market. Still, with only 1% of sales, Tesla has managed to achieve a market capitalization greater than the combined value of the nine biggest car manufacturers, who, between them, make up 50% of the global market in sales.
BMW positions itself as “the ultimate driving machine”. In reality, not many of us need an ultimate driving machine to take the kids to school or commute to work in traffic. But BMW knows that drivers will happily pay for massively and unnecessarily over-powered and over-equipped cars.
Coming closer to home and looking at professional service firms, some have developed a powerful mass-niche brand positioning that enables them to stand apart in extremely crowded fields.
McKinsey positions itself as being for “our clients’ most important challenges”. C-Suite executives have always been willing to pay for what is – and is perceived to be – the very best strategic advice for their biggest challenges.
McKinsey has managed to own this niche positioning better than anyone else, and because every leadership team is likely to identify its own most important challenge, this niche is extensive.
Cooley, a West-Coast law firm, is overtly positioned as a specialist technology firm “where innovation meets the law”. Technology is only one sector but it’s growing exponentially (the mass part) and influencing many other sectors (the halo effect).
Quinn Emanuel, a litigation-only law firm, positions itself exclusively as “trial lawyers”. This may not seem particularly niche to the casual observer but the reality of litigation is that very few significant disputes end up in court; they are settled beforehand. However, Quinn Emanuel taps into the idea of ‘trial-threat’ being a significant benefit in the minds of clients facing potentially expensive or damaging litigation, which expands the size of its market way beyond the courtroom battles we see in the movies.
PA Consulting’s positioning is “bringing ingenuity to life”. This mass-niche positioning firmly embraces the high-ground capability of innovation that is perceived to be the ‘pointy end’ of many strategic challenges faced by clients looking to external consultants for advice and expertise.
Pulling it off
The reason that many organizations are unable to adopt a mass-niche strategic brand positioning is partly that the analysis part is tricky. Still, it’s mainly because the execution part is even more challenging. The impact will only be driven by changes made at the coalface – your client experience, not by what it says on your website.
When it comes to adopting a mass-niche positioning, you can’t have your cake and eat it. You must commit or won’t realize the benefits; it’s no good being ‘a bit focused’. That way, you miss out on the market-facing benefits and still must endure the internal friction that any degree of focus automatically attracts in a professional services firm.
Cover image source: Florian Doppler