The Key to Success is Niching

brand brand management brand strategy brand tuned branding intellectual property names personal brand Dec 14, 2021
The Key to Success is Niching

As we approach the holidays, I wanted to stocktake on 2021, and to talk about niching, which is a foundational topic that isn’t well understood.

Many entrepreneur courses I’ve come across do advise people to niche and not to try to sell to everyone. However, there is often a lack of detail on how to go about choosing a niche. The upshot is that many entrepreneurs get it wrong. They either pick a niche at random, or one that’s too narrow, or they disregard the advice altogether, because it’s too difficult to implement.  

It’s natural to want to emulate bigger businesses, who do seemingly target everyone. But the needs of small businesses are very different. So, don’t look at a big business as it is now. Instead, find out how they started out.

Harrods was a haberdashery in Southwark London, Marks and Spencer was originally a stall at a Penny bazaar in Leeds, Facebook started as a platform for Harvard students to connect, Burberry was originally a man making outdoor clothes in Basingstoke. Tesco was a stall in Hackney. Clark's shoes were originally slipper makers in the village of Street in Somerset. You get the idea. Every business starts off small. The brands we know and admire today grew big because they were successful in their initial areas of focus.

You may be aiming big but let go of the fear that niching down is going to limit your business. You can expand into other niches and build expertise as you go. By succeeding in one niche, you get lift off more quickly, and attract the revenues to expand your focus to other niches. So, the road to global domination is one niche at a time.

Whether you’re a designer, a marketer, a software developer, architect, engineer, or coach, you have a set of skills with which to navigate the world. How you stand out and set yourself apart from others who have similar skills to yours holds the key to your success. Adopting a scatter gun approach by targeting everyone is unlikely to lead to success even if your skills are rare. It will always take longer to attract customers if you don’t take the time to identify a target for your skills. If you have skills that are in high demand, think about who will value them the most.  

Focus on Niching

Today and in the first episode of the New Year I’m going to focus on niching. The accent in this episode is on experts with core skills who want to increase their earning potential. In the New Year I’ll focus on how to segment the market and identify a target for a new business concept.

Ronnie Fox who I interviewed back in May 2020 had a highly successful career as a city lawyer and is well-known in the legal industry. What he has to say on the subject of niching is worth listening to. I asked him what steps he took to ensure his skillset would be relevant to his target market. His strategy for building his brand, and niching provide useful insights. First here is a brief overview of his career.   

Well, I was a corporate transactional lawyer, doing a broad range of company commercial work at my first firm, where I did my training contract, and my vision initially, when I started my firm in 1989, was to become a corporate and commercial boutique. The first employment job came in, and I looked around and I said, who would like to do this? And they all said you. So, I started doing employment work and I became more and more interested in the people aspect, the psychological aspect of doing employment work. And I wrote a book on how to calculate what people were entitled to receive when they left employment. I got more and more employment work in the Employment Department became the biggest department of the firm. And then people started approaching me with partnership issues, where indeed psychological elements are even more important. And I became interested in that. In 1998, I set up the Association of Partnership Practitioners. And I said to myself, if we attract 100 people who are interested in partnership work, that will be a success. Well, the Association of Partnership Practitioners is still going, we have around 300 members. I spent a lot of my time doing quite sophisticated partnership work and employment work. And that's what I enjoy doing.

Something to bear in mind is that Ronnie is primarily a non-contentious lawyer. The route to fame for litigation lawyers is different. It might come from handling a high-profile case if you happen to represent a celebrity, such as OJ Simpson. Career success can come quickly too for litigation lawyers if they’re involved in a ground-breaking case that sets a new precedent under the law.

For non-contentious lawyers like Ronnie, I wanted to uncover the secret of his success, so I asked him why he got so many clients and became well-known:

I've always believed in team working, I haven't taken on a professional job on my own. For great many years, I've always enjoyed working as part of a team. I've enjoyed the mentoring part and bringing up relatively recently qualified people and grow them into standalone lawyers. And it’s stood me in good stead, because clients like the fact that there's not one lawyer, but a team of lawyers working for them……I've always thought that my name should stand for something of which I should be proud of and try and leave a legacy. I've made exceptional efforts to keep colleagues happy and I've studied in an informal way, psychology. I believe that one of the great gaps in the training of professional people, and particularly lawyers, is that they don't study human nature. They're ignorant of psychology. That was one aspect, and second was the focus of what I enjoyed doing. For example, it's never been a part of my life's ambition to complete a VAT return….Some people seek it as part of setting up a practice. But even when I started, what is now Fox & Partners, I had an account person helping me from day one, to do the bank reconciliations and the VAT returns and so on.

Shireen: It's so important to delegate isn't it, and to just focus on what you're good at.

Exactly what you're good at, and what you enjoy doing. In the course of my partnership work, I've met a great many lawyers who actually don't enjoy what they're doing. But it was not until their mid-40s, that they discovered that they didn't actually enjoy the work. But they're trapped, too deep in, they've got responsibilities to others. And they don't know what else to do. I've been very, very lucky, in that I've always been able to focus on what I enjoy doing.

Shireen: That's quite remarkable, how have you done that?

Part of it is introspection, part of it is looking at my colleagues, and trying to identify where their strengths are greater than mine and passing on those elements of the work which play to their strengths and allow me time to play to mine, Is that a fair answer?

Listen to how Ronnie used specialisation to niche his skills:

Shireen: And how did you distinguish your firm from other employment and partnership lawyers? Did you do anything in particular, to position yourself differently?

Well, one key was specialization. When I started working on Golden Handshake work, as I described it, there were very, very few exclusively employment lawyers. But when the Employment Lawyers Association was formed, the quantity of employment lawyers grew and grew. But partnership was different, partnership work wasn't really recognized as a speciality on its own. And people came to me and said, well you went from one partnership to another, you were in a partnership that merged, you must have learned something about partnership, Ronnie. And when the number of employment lawyers belonging to the Employment Lawyers Association, went into the 1000s, I thought I would focus on partnership work, and building recognition for partnership work as a separate area of expertise.

Shireen: Right, so you have actually carefully managed your skills.

I've been trying to do so, and again, I've had a couple of strokes of luck. I formed the Association of Partnership Practitioners in 1998. With a colleague who has since become a leading practitioner in that field, Claire Murray. And discussion started about the ability of a professional practice to limit its liability. And within a year or two, the Limited Liability Partnerships Act, became law is actually became law in the 2000s. The Association of Partnership Practitioners contributed to what was enacted, and we became a leader in that field. And at the time, there were a lot of commercial lawyers and litigation, lawyers and employment lawyers dabbling in partnership work. I like to think we help to achieve recognition in the guides and elsewhere for partnership work as a separate area of expertise, and to position ourselves as a leader in that field.

Shireen: Right. so, you've distinguished yourself through your knowledge and skills, would you recommend that young lawyers should do the same? Or should they get broad experience initially?

Broad experience initially, and then focus on a particular area, which they enjoy. And when they feel they have something to contribute.

And you took a leadership position, thereby forming an association, or do you think that was pivotal to your success?

I think that played a significant part in securing separate chapters on partnership in leading guides, like the legal 500 and chambers. It was certainly a great help. And I was the first Chairman of the Association. And I think it helped, I think it helped.

Ronnie’s experience of employment law becoming an overcrowded field and moving to partnership law, rings true of my experience with IP law. There was a time when IP skills were rare. Now virtually every company and commercial lawyer and law firm offers IP expertise and trademark registration services.

Personally, I have never been purely interested in the law. If I had been, I’d have focused on litigation because you really get to focus on the minutiae of the law when you’re involved in legal disputes. But if your interests are wider, as mine were in entrepreneurship, marketing, and branding, you need a different approach.

Problems in Small Business Market

The one I’ve taken is to try to solve some of the problems I have seen in the small business market around branding and marketing. That led me to publishing a book on branding Brand Tuned the new rules of branding strategy, and intellectual property which I started writing in late 2020 and finished in March 2021. I then attended the mini-MBA in brand management and am just finishing the mini-MBA in marketing. Both MBAs were with Mark Ritson and Marketing Week.  Those courses, reading books, listening to podcasts, interviewing people for this show, and coaching my clients, have taken my skills to the next level. It’s been a busy year of transition as I moved away from being purely an IP lawyer to a brand strategist with a unique set of skills. I’m still adding to my skills, for example, in January I’ll be doing Mary Neumier’s Level C course to improve my understanding of design and semiotics.

Developing one’s skills and becoming more multidisciplinary is what I believe is needed for many specialists.

The broader perspective I now have, has led to new insights into the problems I was seeing. For example, I’ve realised the problems are even bigger than I’d initially thought, because even big businesses are missing the IP dimension when it comes to managing their brands.

The brand management course I attended had next to nothing to say about IP, even though brand managers and marketers are often the people closest to the brand. If they don’t appreciate that there are IP implications in the actions they take, then how can lawyers ensure the organisation takes the right actions?  I discussed an example to illustrate how IP issues pop up in unexpected ways, in episode 98 on Distinctiveness v Differentiation:

What can go wrong if you change your brand identifier without updating your trademark registration to the new version is evident in a trademark case between Lacoste and Crocodile in New Zealand. Now Crocodile International noticed that Lacoste was not using a consistent crocodile design. The crocodile design they were using was different to the version they had registered. This presented an opportunity for Crocodile International to apply to cancel Lacoste's trademark registration, because if a business does not use its trademark in the form in which its registered for more than five years, then its registration is vulnerable to cancellation on the grounds of non-use. In its defence, Lacoste argued that it should not lose its trademark for lack of use, because while it didn't use the crocodile logo in the form, it was registered. It did use the trademark because it uses different versions of crocodiles, and therefore it was still using a crocodile as its trademark. This broad argument that any use of a crocodile is use of their registered crocodile trademark was rejected out of hand by the court. The court said no. claiming a monopoly over the concept of a crocodile was just too broad. So, Lacoste's trademark was revoked.

So, you see, it weakens an organization's position to make changes to its designs that are not then reflected on the trademark registers. If Lacoste had updated its registration, Crocodile would have been prevented from registering its crocodile design, because it would have been too similar to Lacoste's trademark. Effectively, therefore, Lacoste would have got the wide scope of protection it was arguing it had by virtue of its use of a crocodile in its branding, if only it had maintained an up-to-date trademark registration. Trademark registration gives you a wide scope of protection.

I now consider myself to be part of the branding industry rather than purely the legal industry. As such, I’m different to other lawyers due to my expanded skills.

I believe marketers, designers and other brand strategists would similarly distinguish themselves from their competitors by adding to their skillset, so they broaden their perspective to include design or marketing as the case may be, as well as IP. IP is an integral aspect of branding, and hence a skill that would separate brand strategists from the pack and enable them to stand out and add more value.

The fact that lawyers were not being included in branding teams was the reason that spurred me on to write Brand Tuned. I had heard that lawyers are regarded in a negative light and are seen as people that detract from the branding process. For example, this is what Rory Sutherland had to say on the subject.

The process of coming up with something new and different and fresh. The whole creative process is very fragile, you know. Yeah. And actually, really good ideas can be killed if you expose them to too much negativity too early. Yeah, I have heard that. And so, if you like copywriters, and creative people, and to some extent, everybody in the advertising industry will have a visceral fear of lawyers, because they don't see lawyers as a means to making their work better. They see it as some people who come in and destroy the headline or destroy the tambour of the copy, or the tone of the copy by inserting, you know, words fairly indiscriminately into, you know, to cover your ass for some reason. And one of the things I learned to do, which I think distinguishes a good reasonably good copywriter from a bad one is I always try and reach an accommodation. Okay, look, this is what I'm trying to do. This is what you're trying to say, okay, let's see if we can reach an accommodation. There are a few cases, I'll tell you two cases where lawyers have accidentally improved creative work. So, when I think it was, and I was trying to remember the agency, it might have been KHBB, came up with a line for Carlsberg, the best lager in the world. The lawyer said you can't say that. But they said you can say probably the best lager in the world. Now, interestingly, that made the campaign much better lager live, because they've had as much fun with the word probably, as they've had with the best lager in the world, it made it better, actually. And the other interesting one is a famous one for sale cut, where they weren't the Advertising Standards Authority or similar wouldn't allow them showing the shower scene in psycho with a purple curtain. But they said if you remove the knife, and you just showed a shower and a curtain, the ad would be perfectly acceptable. Now the ad is actually better without the knife because it leaves the consumer to make the connection. It makes the thing implicit rather than explicit, which in many ways makes it a bit more engaging advertisement. So, there are a few cases by the way, where this kind of thing has actually made things better. And constraints can sometimes make things better. And I was thought, okay, if you work with a lawyer, as a copywriter, and you say this is what I'm trying to do, this is what I'm trying to convey, which is one thing, and this is what you need to say, as a lawyer to cover yourself. Let's see if we can find it in the Venn diagram where those two things overlap.

Shireen: Yeah, so it needs a different type of lawyer

I think so. Yeah. The assumption is that basically, when you get in touch with a liar, they'll just give you a lot of reasons why you can't do things.

Since to be honest, it requires, you know, a degree of fantasy, you know, the, you know, the creation of something new to requires, to some extent, I suppose, an element of slightly pathological optimism. Hmm. Yeah. It you know, people desperately don't want to expose themselves to negativity, at certain phases of the process and not unreasonably. You're right in terms of a lawyer who comes in and says, actually you can do you could do a bit more here because you could potentially trademark this colour, or you could get to own this. Yeah. Okay. That would be a great conversation because now we've got another reason to sell the campaign.

Training in Design, Marketing and IP

I think training in branding and marketing is how lawyers can add value to the branding process, so we need a new discipline of branding lawyer. There’s a plethora of IP lawyers out there, but it is difficult to find suitable ones with the right legal skills for branding, let alone those who have inter-disciplinary skills too.

In 2022, I hope to launch a course on brand strategy that synthesises my book, all I’ve learnt on the courses I’ve subsequently attended, and the practical experience I’ve gained coaching clients. If you want to expose yourself to new ideas and thinking and expand your skills as a brand strategist to include IP, then do register for the Brand Tuned Accreditation program  

It’s so important to incorporate IP in your work If you offer a branding service because IP is not just a legal subject. It’s one of the 3 fundamental disciplines to understand when creating a brand identity. Missing it from the branding process is just plain wrong. My aim is to make IP an inherent part of branding professionals’ skillset.  I will launch a pilot course once there are 30 people signed up to do the program. So, I reckon I’ll need 90 to register their interest to end up with 30 who actually sign up. Do therefore register your interest, the link is in the show notes.

I hope you’ve benefited from this episode on niching. In the next two weeks there are episodes from the archives that discuss choosing the right business model and provide guidance on differentiation and positioning. Then we are kicking off the new year with an episode on segmentation and targeting which are essential steps when developing a brand strategy. I hope you’ll tune in on 7th Jan. Till then have an enjoyable break and a good start to the new year.