Marketing the Small and Unique

I’m by no means a marketing guru, although I’ve been exposed to the discipline most of my career. Nonetheless, I have a rant on marketing that hopefully makes some sense. See when I was young and idealistic, I actually thought to myself: when I grow up, I’m going to drive a Saturn and use a Mac. The same thing that enticed me to watch Star Wars over and over again as a boy, attracted me to these companies and their products. Like the Rebels fighting the incumbent Galactic Empire, these companies were the underdogs, daring to do something different in a sea of evil sameness.
Apple positioned their computers as being for those who “Think Different” and advertised themselves as the liberators of a workforce stuck with boring, faceless computers by the evil IBM and it’s clone companies. They made unique and elegant products that weren’t necessarily superior to the rest, but were at least different.
Saturn had a similar strategy: “A Different Kind of Car Company. A Different Kind of Car.” In fact, their cars weren’t that different. They were just GM products, but they separated themselves from the pack by making their vehicles a little bit different, by pursuing and employing innovative new manufacturing concepts, and by marketing themselves as unique.

Neither of these companies were “big.” Apple has struggled along with a 5-6% market share since the Apple II became out of date, and Saturn was started as a small prodigal child of GM, getting nearly none of the support the other GM brands get. Both company’s business leaders understood that to survive, they had to find themselves a loyal market niche, and make sure those customers were incredibly happy. My 1996 Saturn SL2, the bottom of the barrel as far as cars go, was the most comfortable vehicle I’ve ever driven. The sales people who sold it to me were kind, patient and helpful. From the day I bought my first car, to the day my cousin wrapped it around a tree, Saturn made sure that I was a believer in their company by treating me like I had bought into something special. And my Macintosh 512k, the second Mac ever built, came with the signatures of the team that designed it engraved inside the case, like a secret personal note to all the people who invested in their shared dream. Every detail of that computing experience, from the Operating System, with it’s cute little trash can and happy Mac icon, to the hardware, with it’s tiny footprint and round edges, was designed to make the user feel like they were using something made especially for them.

Apple LogoIn the 90’s, Apple lost their way. It’s a credit to the original marketing strategy that most of their niche remained loyal during that time, despite the stupidity of the direction they took. Believing that to compete in a broader market, Apple had to conform, a series of new CEOs begin to strip from the company everything that made it unique, until all that remained of the original creative computer was an aging OS and a fruit shaped logo. The hardware began, more and more, to resemble the IBM PC Clones that Mac users tried so hard to differentiate themselves from. Instead of creative industrial design, they began to emulate the boring gray boxes that everyone else had on their desk at the time. The operating system, once the peak of technology, began to look dated, and they entertained talks with Microsoft about running Windows on the Mac. The business leaders didn’t realise that no one needed yet another Clone PC manufacturer, and that the loyal 5% that they were abandoning was the only thing that kept them in business.
Then, in 1997, the original CEO was brought back on board through the acquisition of his new computer company. Soon after that the iMac was born, and the company began clawing it’s way back to life — by re-connecting with the people who bought Macs in the first place: the ones who saw themselves as creative and different. The ones who wanted a computer that wasn’t just a PC, but was something different and fun and personal. Something that felt like it was made for them. And once again, Apple began to differentiate itself from the rest of the market. Sure, 5% wasn’t much, but it’s better than 0%. Each successive computer that shipped under this re-born strategy was a hit with the loyal few, and made waves in the sea of sameness that was the rest of the market.
Since then, Apple’s market share hasn’t grown exponentially, but their profitability sure has. They don’t say “We’re Different” in their marketing collateral any more, but they scream it in their products. Each is a work of art, carefully crafted so that when you hold it, you feel like you’ve got something special. And slowly people outside that 5% are starting to pay attention. Without abandoning the loyal, Apple’s managed to start to attract the common PC users.

Saturn LogoThen there’s Saturn — the company that incited this rant. For years they made cars that were different. They made cars like Apple makes computers: carefully designed, built and marketed to make the user feel special. And like Apple, they were hardly the biggest player in the game, but they were successful with the customers they had. A couple of years ago they brought in a new CEO who didn’t get it. She saw Saturn as a wayward GM product that didn’t conform to the rest of the brands, and therefore was in need of correcting. Systematically she’s begun changing the product and the image. Instead of original designs and architecture, Saturn vehicles have become re-branded Chevys. Instead of making cars their core customers want, they’re making the cars everyone else is making. Instead of being different, they’re trying to be the same.
Product quality has slipped, and a cheap Saturn car now is just a cheap car. The brand has slipped too, and you see the GM logo more on their commercials than you do the Saturn logo. About the only thing that remains of the original vision is the plastic side panels on some of their models — and those models change every year, in an effort to make them look more like everything else on the market. And the question I’m left with now is, why would I buy a Saturn? If it’s the exact same car as the Chevy and Pontiac equivalent, but from a smaller brand with fewer dealerships, why would I want one?

Big companies can afford to be boring. Organizations that have been around for decades can run on inertia alone. People will buy what they sell simply because they’ve been there forever. Small, young companies looking to make a dent in the market, can’t afford to be the same as every one else. They need to know who they are, and know who their customers are. They need to offer something unique, and failing that, at least package it in a unique way. They need to make people believe in them and in what they have to offer. Show them that even though they’re taking a risk by buying into a smaller company, it’ll be worth it because they, the individual customer, are important.

Big companies don’t need to change very fast. They don’t need to adapt or to grow, they don’t need to innovate. They can sell simply by being there. Small companies can’t sit still for a minute. Like Apple’s OS in the 90s that got stale and eventually nearly useless, a small company that doesn’t constantly listen to their base and find out how to meet them where they’re at, is going to fail.

And if you think I’m only talking about the business world, you’re totally missing the point.

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