Vive la différence: a book that celebrates the new niche markets

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In case you haven’t noticed, commerce is an absolute mess. You can look to a myriad reasons why the economy is in such chaos: natural disasters, suffering currencies, and various taxes driving the prices of basics up; the demand for luxury goods declining as a result; the rise of popularity of online entertainment and socialising leading to an increase in ‘cocooning’; a domino-ing nonchalant attitude toward what the Jones’s are doing; the appeal of vintage versus the new; environmental catastrophe hinting to us that consumerism is bad. But nothing could be more responsible – at least when it comes to the distress being felt by multinational corporations – than the dissolution of the mainstream masses.

In his timely book ‘Niche’, economic commentator-come-author James Harkin presents magnificent examples of where big brands have gone wrong in an age where multiple choice, easy genre access, and electronic interactivity are turning us into cultural enthusiasts and specialist seekers, helping smaller, niche-focused businesses to come out on top.

Using a variety of examples, from the ubiquitous (Apple, Starbucks) to the cult-like (Moleskine,, Harkin highlights a new business rule: forget about the general audience and instead stake out identifiable niches. He argues successfully that for too long marketeers have insulted consumers by adopting a sort of ‘questionnaire sociology’ that forced us into large groups according to sex, race, religious and political beliefs, and class simply to shift the greatest number of units, and in turn having delivered products and services of a sub-standard.

Now, he says, the tables have turned and thanks to interactive ecosystems like the internet, the demand for uniqueness in product, or customisation in service, is expected and necessary for a brand to succeed. Oddly enough, he doesn’t touch on notions of the new ‘consumer republic’ that is on the rise in our new electronic playground; the two-way stream that allows us to instantly critique and segregate the crap from the credible, and the dull from the delicious, and in effect place pressure on brands to be more accountable for measure of quality. But there’s plenty of fodder on that topic for another book. Nor does he refer to the ‘silhouette rhetoric’ that has been adopted by the big brand likes of Coca-Cola and Apple, whose marketing imagery once starred specific subjects but now feature ambiguous, cartoon-like figures, with the subliminal aim of seducing the new micro-segmented niche groups. Again, that’s for another book.

In a clever literary tactic, the author uses the analogy of the commodity marketplace as an eco-system (apt in this contemporary eco-friendly climate) and the metaphor works well, positioning the multinationals as ‘savage beasts’ and consumers as ‘birds of a feather’, now after our own specific prey. This flocking away from lowest common denomination to ‘nests’ of specialisation is evident across all fields – from fashion, food  and pharmaceuticals to literature, online networks and politics.

The best example Harkin uses to exemplify how the market no longer favours the mainstream is boutique TV station, HBO. Instead of simplifying its content to attract rupturing audiences such as mainstream TV does with its stream of inane talent quests and dumbed-down ‘reality’ shows, HBO focuses more deeply on producing distinctive programs to serve relatively small groups of enthusiasts (think of the cult status of ‘The Wire’, ‘Dexter’, and even ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Mad Men’ in their earlier airings). Indeed, HBO’s “who gives a fuck about the average viewer?” philosophy very much echoes the author’s own. And ours.

Here’s to giving middlebrow the middle finger.


‘Niche’ by James Harkin is published through Little, Brown.

Also available in e-book format.