#TBT: Even Lions Can’t Play Where the Gorillas Play

Happy #TBT! Here’s an oldie-but-goodie post from Jim: Develop a Niche.

In nature, niches are pretty straightforward. Owls survive on mice and snakes while hunting at night, so as to avoid most bigger predators and to have less competition for food. That’s how they get it done. Lions have a niche, too; they travel in groups and hunt herds in big open spaces. Even they, bad asses of the animal kingdom that they are, can’t play where the gorillas play. Or even in the tops of trees where the monkeys rule, because they’re not equipped for it.

What evolution brings to the animal kingdom exists outside it, too. Years ago, Exxon wanted to be in the computer business. Seriously. They spent about a zillion dollars developing Exxon computers and failing comically. (If you want more of the story on this, read Positioning by Ries and Trout.) On the other hand, those computers got terrific gas mileage. Kidding.

So companies, however big or small, must have a niche. Another way of thinking of it is that every company must have a way of feeding itself, just as every animal has to have a strategy for feeding itself.

This doesn’t just apply to money. It also applies to the attention of the public. Take a place like the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. It has, more than any institution I can think of, no need for money. Thanks to JP’s endowment and a generation of compound interest, they have virtually unlimited funds. But even that doesn’t guarantee them relevance. It guarantees them the ability to make noise, and that’s about it.

But over time, even the Getty could slowly become irrelevant if they don’t have a strategy for getting people’s attention and using it well.

I’m not talking about advertising here. I’m not talking about image.

I’m talking about identity. At a glance, “image” and “identity” seem like similar concepts, but they’re not. An image is an appearance, and is remarkably easily manipulated. You could be running the stodgiest chamber music orchestra in the world, and hire the right agency to come in and create an ad campaign that makes you look like Radiohead meets the L.A. Lakers.

But it wouldn’t change who you are. It wouldn’t change your identity. Not only would buyers probably see through the veneer of a phony image (give them credit for being very media savvy), they’d certainly notice it when they actually encountered you.

They’d respect you more as a traditional chamber orchestra than as a traditional chamber orchestra pretending to be cool, but doing a poor job at it.

So the first question to ask when developing a niche is this: What’s special about who we are? What’s interesting and unique about who we are?

Some of what you are is interesting, unique and can be built on. Some is neutral and probably less important than you think to your identity. Other stuff could be bad and taking away from your ability to develop a niche.

Sure, you’re a chamber orchestra. That’s not an inherently popular genre, and you know that. That’s OK because it’s what your organization is about. You can’t change that without basically just starting a new organization.

Maybe you also have a long-standing tradition of six different performances a year, coinciding with the high tide and the full moon coming together. Hmmm. Perhaps that’s something that can go. Perhaps reconfiguring your performance calendar, time-honored though it may be, is a good idea.

So two things: chamber music and a tide and full moon-based calendar. One is core to your identity, and one is just something you’ve been doing for a long time.

Step 1 to developing a niche is to break down what’s important about your identity, what is not, and then start thinking about how to build on the good stuff.

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