Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Find Your Niche...Build Your Brand

How many of you have seen the show "Shark Tank"? It's a show about hopeful entrepreneurs who stand before a team of "sharks" (incredibly wealthy and successful businessmen) and pitch their business ideas, asking the sharks for backing for a stake in their company. Some of the businesses are incredible, and others are hilariously bad. One of the sharks, Daymond John, is the president and CEO of FUBU, a very successful clothing line that has caused him to be recognized as one of the country's greatest entrepreneurs. I'm reading his book right now, "The Brand Within," and I came across a particular passage that struck me as very significant. I believe it is highly beneficial to any entrepreneur trying to "make it" with whatever he or she is selling, whether it is goods or services, and that a basic understanding of these principles can provide clarity and direction for where you want to take your business. Let's dive in and take a look at the four steps he outlines.

1. The Item
No matter what type of entrepreneur you are, you will always have an item. As a musician, my item is a piano lesson, a piano concert, a CD, a DVD, an accompanying gig...you name it. Some of the things I'm selling are physical items, like the CDs, but most of all, I'm selling my time and knowledge. My dad is a stonemason. He's ultimately selling a beautiful rock wall, fireplace, stone on a home, mailbox, or other product associated with masonry. However, he's ultimately selling his time and expertise, and some physical stuff comes with it. I believe that in our society today, as technology advances, information has become the greatest item of all. I recently bought a Kindle from Amazon, one of those nifty little e-readers (as I feel like I'm going blind from reading all of my books on my phone....between the microscopic text and the blaring backlight, everything I look at is gradually getting fuzzier), and as I've entered this whole new "Kindle World," I'm amazed at just how in-demand information is in the form of books. Even specialized and rare books are now available in a "Kindle Edition." Amazon reports that there are over a million books available in their store. I know that pales in comparison to how many books there are in the world, but this e-reader craze that's hit the market has already developed into a bursting-at-the-seams boatload of content that a single human could never hope to consume in a lifetime.

2. The Label
When you buy a basic item - such as a backpack, pair of jeans, laptop case, you name it - and you just want the plain old item, you're not too concerned with the brand you're buying. For instance, I have a laptop case I bought from someone on eBay. I think it was six bucks. The label is marked "skque". Why did I call it a label and not a brand? Maybe I am incorrect to do this, but to me it's a label because it means nothing to me. However, when I set my laptop down on the piano today in University of Michigan practice room 1161, what brand of piano did I set it on? Probably my favorite brand in the world - Steinway and Sons. We'll talk about that shortly. Suffice it to say, a label is simply a name for something, whereas a brand is so much more. (On an extremely nerdy sidenote (yes, this is for you, Mom) - when I was about 9 years old, I got one of those extremely incredible label makers. A girl - yes, a girl - at school had one, and I instantly became jealous, but my blue one was much more manly than her pink one. Oh wait, the store was out of blue, so I had to get purple. I set out labeling things around the house. My mom approached me and told me that I had kind of missed whole point of a label maker. "What do you mean?" "Well," she said, holding up the can opener, "you labeled this CAN OPENER. Did you think we were going to get confused at what it was? When you label stuff, label it with your name.") On this note, when we are selling our time, our name is our label. If I was taking a piano lesson with Vladimir Horowitz, the item would still be a piano lesson, but the label would be a "Vladimir Horowitz" piano lesson. Furthermore, since Horowitz is such a genius, it would extend into the brand category.

3. The Brand
According to Daymond John, when you purchase a particular brand of something, you're making a promise. You're declaring your loyalty to that brand. I have a friend from my mission who makes it a point to not wear particular brands. "Why would I want to advertise for these companies I hate? Even if Abercrombie or American Eagle or H&M has a great T-shirt, if it has their name on it, I don't want it, because they are the epitome of everything I can't stand about consumerism and materialism." What's so special about that three-pronged symbol, wrapped up so elegantly (cough) in a circle? Oh yeah, it's a Mercedes. What's the difference between my used and scratched Honda Civic and the same year's model of a Mercedes? In the world's eyes, everything. In my eyes, very little. What I see when I see both cars is that they'll both probably last around the same amount of years if I'm diligent with the upkeep. However, when I think of owning a Mercedes, I get kind of a sick feeling, not just because of the huge payments, but because if I had to replace parts on that thing, it's probably going to cost me a lot more than a Honda. On the flip side, a lot of people view Honda that way - they buy Fords or GMCs because the parts are cheaper. Every day I drive my car, I'm saying, "Hey world...I drive a Honda." And, unless I put a bumper sticker that says, "I HATE Honda even though I'm driving one," I'm telling the world, "Hey, Hondas are great cars. I drive one, and so should you." Brands develop loyalty in a variety of ways. For me, Steinway and Sons, my favorite brand in the world, has consistently earned my loyalty over the years as the best brand of piano. Why? Because it has consistently produced the most responsive, dynamic, colorful, and warm musical instruments I've played. Have there been some Yamahas that have been better than some Steinways I've played? Certainly. You don't need to look beyond most University's practice rooms, filled with "Steinways", aka black boxes that have been pounded on for 16 hours a day by "musicians," effectively stamping out any brand on the piano (and in some cases, literally...they are so scratched you can't even see "Steinway" anymore). However, Steinway consistently delivers a product that is so superior than that of other brands, in my opinion, that it is no problem for me to declare them as my favorite brand.

4. The Lifestyle
Finally, we see lifestyles that come along with brands. My wife and I are cheapskates at heart, but that doesn't stop us from enjoying going into the most expensive stores and just browsing when we're out of town and have some time to kill. I've had several competitions and performances in New York over the years, and if there's one store that has stuck out in my mind that ties into this whole "lifestyle" thing, it's Tiffany. When you go into their store, it's extremely quiet and clean. Everything is beautifully encased, and when we've gone, it almost seems like there's a "crowd-control" factor. The way they've accomplished this is by having such a large staff that the store actually seems less crowded, since there is always a person available to help you. As you browse the overpriced selection, suddenly it doesn't seem so overpriced anymore. "Wow that's expensive...but hey, it's quality. After all, it's Tiffany!" These words have been uttered by countless women to justify absurd purchases. Is that priceless lock and key necklace for $200 that much better than the $5 one you can pick up on Canal St. in the back alley? It's ultimately just a necklace. "But wait! It's so much more than that!" Really? How? "Well, it says Tiffany on it." Go to an African village, and see if they can tell the difference. Whether we like it or not, brands bring about a lifestyle with it. When you see WalMart's Great Value items stocked in someone's pantry, as opposed to brands you'd buy at Whole Foods, it tells you a little something about that person. I like both stores for different reasons, and I'm not calling anyone bad who drives a Mercedes or Honda, who shops at WalMart or Whole Foods, who eats at McDonald's rather than Ruth's Chris...I'm just drawing awareness, thanks to Daymond John's book, as to how brands greatly affect our life, by creating the false illusion (and in some cases, a reality!) of the lifestyle that comes along with that brand. (On a side note, I believe that this country's staggering amount of debt is a direct result of abuse of these four steps - people trying to live lifestyles that they obviously can't afford and sustain).

As an entrepreneur, what is the item or idea that you are going to sell? Will you simply label it, or will you brand it? Is there a lifestyle associated with your product? If so, how will you turn your item into the ultimate item for that lifestyle? What will set your brand apart from others? Finally, what niche will you fill in your market that is missing today? Special thanks to Daymond John for writing such an amazing, inspiring and entertaining book that reads so easily, but has a wealth of invaluable ideas.