Apologies in advance to foreign readers for the very British cultural references that follow – no doubt you’ll be able to sub in your own equivalents and still get the gist.
When I was growing up, I vividly remember our family’s Saturday night viewing routine: Blind Date, Gladiators, and Birds of a Feather. An unbeatable triple combo of mainstream light entertainment, enjoyed not only by us but millions of others across the country.
Those, of course, were different times. There were only 5 TV stations (4 in my household, we couldn’t get the exotic Channel 5), and so naturally the nation’s viewing habits were concentrated into the meagre options available. This dynamic didn’t only apply to TV of course – everybody listened to Oasis and the Spice Girls, everybody watched Titanic and Forrest Gump, everybody drank Coca-Cola, everybody voted for Tony Blair – this was the age of mass-market appeal before we were able to burrow down into our internet-enabled niches.
Now, we are told, times have changed. We are free to indulge our unique personal tastes, watch what we want, listen to what we want, eat how we want, and so on. In the past, if you had a weird interest, like rating airline food or cataloguing potatoes that look like celebrities, you’d struggle to gather enough like minded souls to indulge it. But connectivity has fixed all that. There’s now supposedly a market for everything, and this, in turn, has eaten away at the middle and killed the mass market.
At least, that’s the narrative.
For founders, this narrative has been liberating. For the most part, they understand that it’s important to be differentiated, and to have a unique proposition – and the increased commercial viability of niche-ness has enabled them to do that. To be unique and mass – formerly to the only reliable path to success – is extremely difficult. The low-hanging fruit has been taken, and it often seems like there are no such ideas left to be had. But to be unique and niche? Well, that’s easy. Keto dog food, cactus water, CBD dental floss – the modern marketplace makes these once ludicrous ideas appear viable.
But is all this true?
Is the mass market really in retreat? And are niche propositions really commercially viable? Although these trends are undeniably real, my sense is that they are wildly overstated – and that the mass market represents a far bigger opportunity than most founders realise.
In reality, the mass market is still alive and well – it’s just that certain segments of the population (including most founders) have managed to successfully tune out of it, and so don’t realise just how healthy and powerful it still is.
A perfect example of this can be seen in the sitcom Mrs Brown’s Boys, which was recently voted the greatest sitcom ever in a BBC poll. The show – which ended last year – was drawing 90s-esque viewing figures of 10 million people per episode. And yet here’s the thing: have you ever watched it?
Understandably those overseas won’t have, but I’m guessing that even for my UK audience the answer will also be no. I know I haven’t. In fact to tell the truth I’m only vaguely aware of its existence. And this says nothing about the show; it simply says that I, as a certain kind of media user, have successfully isolated myself from the mainstream, which continues to exist quite happily in my absence.
This self-isolation doesn’t only apply to my TV watching habits, it applies to pretty much everything. For example, I am very interested in nutrition, health, and new brands, and as such haven’t bought a mainstream packaged product like Frosties, Sprite, Muller Light, or Carling for many years.
But again, that doesn’t mean these products are in trouble – it just means that weirdos like me now have the means to avoid them.
The problem for founders is that that they are typically the same. They kid themselves into believing the mainstream is contracting simply because they’ve inoculated themselves from it. They listen to weird stuff on Spotify, they go deep on Netflix and spend more time looking at the pages of Courier magazine than the shelves of Tesco. This gives them a distorted picture of the world – one where everyone is going vegan, is into micro-dosing, and knows what NFTs are.
This problem is exacerbated by the thriving communities of founders that exist today. It’s fantastic that we are able to connect with and support one another, that’s for sure. But it has also created an echo chamber. One where cool but fundamentally niche brands become the benchmark for new innovation, whilst genuinely successful ones are ignored, or not known about at all.
The result of all this is a failure to spot where the real market opportunities lie.
My advice to brands (especially FMCG brands in the UK, which isn’t a big enough market to properly sustain niche propositions, unlike the USA) is simple: understand the mass market players you overlap with, and position against them. Find the Mrs Brown’s Boys of your market, understand why it works, and respond to it.
Even if you never manage to topple them, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that they have shaped the market that you operate in. They set the cultural agenda. They define what brands like you normally offer, look like, and cost. It is your responsibly to fit in with the expectations they have created, and then to twist them. To refresh the market. To give people – real people – something new.
Glancing at the top 100 selling grocery brands in the UK for 2020, I would estimate that around 95 have been around for well over 20 years – most of them much longer. The only slightly more recent ones which jumped out were Fever Tree, Monster, and Nakd (Innocent is there too, but if we call them “new” we are really scraping the barrel).
At what is supposedly a glorious time for new brands, there is tragically little churn at the top end of the market.
So although there are lots of reasons for this, let’s not allow our own myopia to be one of them. Let’s not let snobbishness, fear, or infatuation with the niche to restrain our ambition.
There are unique and mass propositions still there for the taking.
Watch ITV, walk around Tescos, listen to Heart, and you’ll find they’re hiding in plain sight.