Book Review: Niche, by James Harkin

Big beasts are struggling, so if you want to succeed in business you need your own specialism.

by Jamie Collinson
Last Updated: 02 Mar 2011

I run a small record label that specialises in leftfield black music, a product the word 'niche' describes precisely. So I began reading former marketer and futurologist James Harkin's book with keen interest, and finished it hoping he was right.

The premise, which I'll simplify, is appealing. Harkin argues that the heyday of the 'big beasts' behind mainstream products is over; that their fevered, market research-driven desire to be all things to all consumers left them ill prepared for the internet age.

Now, he says, our natural need to feel different has been facilitated by the web, allowing us to zoom in on the niche that interests us. As a result, companies that do one thing well are in the ascendancy.

The 'middle', Harkin argues, is now missing and companies that try to do everything have found themselves 'known by everyone but loved by none'.

Picking struggling high street clothing giant Gap as one example, Harkin explains how in the late 1990s, ever more detailed market research enabled companies to slice up their customer base into increasingly outlandish segments. Like the politicians' 'soccer moms' and 'Mondeo men', they excitedly came up with myriad sub-species of customer and hastily created products that they believed would allow them to cover all bases.

Harkin argues that the middle ground these companies attempted to serve collapsed for several reasons: the social convulsions of the 1960s, the fading of traditional institutions, the rise of rich teenagers born in the late seventies and onwards and finally, of course, the onslaught of the internet. Using case studies such as Maxwell House and General Motors, Harkin describes how a twin approach of cost-cutting and detailed market analysis became toxic for the big beasts, leaving the market open for more nimble competitors.

In part, the argument is convincing. The companies that adorn the cover of the book are examined as niche success stories. HBO, the US subscription TV channel, is rightly lauded for its bravery in broadcasting dramas such as The Wire and The Sopranos. Viewers of HBO feel that they're part of something, and that they're making an intelligent choice. Harkin argues enticingly that the niche-age encourages these bold approaches, and thereby enriches culture.

Similarly praised is the company behind Moleskine notebooks, perhaps the perfect niche. In 1997, parent company Modo sold five thousand. By 2005, it was selling 4.5 million a year.

While Maxwell House cut costs and sold a worsening product aimed at a mass market, Starbucks found a niche selling top-quality coffee.

All of this is enthralling and to some extent seems convincing. Despite this, Niche's author at times seems less distant from his futurologist past than he might like to admit. Picking failed and failing companies such as Woolworths and Gap and praising brands like Apple and Starbucks leaves out some very important players that have been working in niches for years.

Coke is never mentioned and Levis only in reference to Gap having once sold them. Microsoft, McDonald's, Nokia and IBM - all in the top 10 brands of 2010 - barely get a look in. Surely these companies show that the mainstream is doing just fine? More than that, haven't they always operated very much in their own 'niche'?

The subtitle of the book, 'Why the market no longer favours the mainstream', also seems at odds with its content. Surely Starbucks and Apple are now mainstream? Does Apple's diversification into apps, music and phones mean it's still operating in one niche?

I suspect that Harkin hasn't entirely shaken off his old profession and sees bold, sweeping trends where arguably there are just new permutations of age-old truths. In the final pages, we're told that companies need 'something distinctive', but the concept of a unique selling point is as old as Woolworths.

That said, Niche is a fascinating book. Its easygoing style ranges confidently over the modern marketing landscape and the examples of brands rising and falling are compelling. The research is excellent too and it is when nuggets emerge - such as the tendency of social niches to discourage diversity of opinion among their members - that Harkin really teaches you something.

Niche: Why the market no longer favours the mainstream
James Harkin

Little, Brown £20.00

- Jamie Collinson is managing director of Big Dada records

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