5 Marketing Lessons You Can Learn from a Weird “Real World” Business

image of west highland terrierOne of the most useful skills in business is to be able to look at what someone else is doing in an unrelated topic, and bring it to your own online marketing.

You’ll find fresh angles, new approaches, and compelling ways to deliver your message.

If you run a yoga studio, you can often learn more from an auto body shop or a roofing company than from your fellow yogis.

If you’re in technology, take a look at what artists are doing. If you’re a musician, borrow from accountants.

Allowing yourself to cross-pollinate will make your ideas stronger. And it gets you out of the tired “same old” marketing all of your competitors are doing.

If I were a betting woman, I’d put folding money that none of our readers is competing in the very weird niche I’m going to talk about today.

Chris Christensen owns a business that manufactures and sells high-end beauty products … for dogs.

Not just any dogs, mind you. Christensen pretty well owns the market for high-end beauty products used to style the winners (and the also-rans) for dog shows. He was featured recently in a fascinating article in Inc. magazine, and the lessons from his business practically jumped off the page at me.

So here they are: five lessons from the dog beauty product industry that you can steal today and start applying to your own marketing, no matter what product or service you offer.

1. Success comes at the intersections

Christensen started out as a rep in the more traditional beauty product business — the one for human beings.

There are billions of dollars to be had in that business — but there are also thousands of competitors.

Through a chance encounter (keep a sharp eye out for these), Christensen realized that he could take his considerable expertise and connections in the beauty business and translate them to this underserved market.

How you can apply it: If your market is too crowded, look for a profitable intersection. Know what you can do incredibly well, then look around for what types of customers might benefit from that in an unexpected way.

Which leads us directly to #2.

2. Go where the customers are

If Christensen had jumped into beauty products for reptiles, he probably wouldn’t have seen the success he has.

Not every niche market is a profitable one.

Instead, he sells to the people who compete in dog shows. And show dog breeders are motivated by three factors that often point to excellent, high-profit markets.

First, winning dog shows boosts the status of the winners. (The human ones, not the canines. I don’t think the dogs care all that much who wins the ribbons, they have their own concerns.)

Status is a superb motivator if you’re trying to sell a product or service. Boost the status of your customers and your business will probably thrive.

Second, winning dog shows boosts customers’ financial well-being. If you’re a dog breeder, winning shows is good for business.

Help your customers make more money and your business will probably thrive.

And finally, dog people are crazy about their dogs. People who buy the cheapest generic shampoo for themselves will spend top dollar on special shampoo for their “babies.”

Cater to the intense desire some humans have to pamper pooches and your business will probably thrive.

So by landing on the dog show market, Christensen won a trifecta … a market driven by three ultra-powerful motivators.

How you can apply it: You don’t have to have that many factors to find your own delightfully profitable niche.

But you do want at least one powerful motivator in your market … whether it’s status, sex, love, wealth, or a passionate hobby that makes people temporarily suspend any tightwad tendencies.

Golf, weight loss, professional education, dating, and dogs are juicy markets where there’s a lot of profit to be made.

Frugality, recycling, house cleaning, the Occupy movement, and naked mole rats tend to be a lot less profitable — even though there are people who are quite passionate about those topics.

3. Focus on where you can deliver exceptional results

Christensen wasn’t just some guy selling shampoo — he really knew the beauty business. He knew the products, and he knew the chemists who manufactured products.

Anyone probably could have achieved some success by pouring cheap drugstore shampoos and hairsprays into bottles and saying those products were specialized for dogs. (See Lesson #4.)

But Christensen knew that to create a lasting business, he’d have to get obsessive about creating quality products — products that got his customers the results they craved.

Products that made those dogs look fantastic.

Now over 70, Christensen still goes to dog shows all over the country to watch and listen. He’s grown his line of products by observing what his customers need, then creating it for them.

The growth of his product line, incidentally, is one of the many reasons his business hasn’t even blinked at the recession. Once he had found a great market, he kept going back to them again and again to see how he could deliver additional value.

How you can apply it: Start with a strong product that delivers the results your customers crave. Perfect that product, until it’s so magnificent that you’re creating legions of raving fans.

Then, if you’re satisfied you have a strong, solid market of buyers, start watching and listening.

What else do they need? What other problems can you solve for them? Are there sub-niches within your niche that need an even more specialized product?

4. Labels matter

Dog shows don’t allow the breeders to use hair spray to style the dogs.

So Christensen doesn’t sell hair spray. He sells “texturizing bodifier.”

Are the ingredients in texturizing bodifier nearly identical to those in regular old hair spray? I have no idea. Maybe. But the label matters, so he labels his product in ways that work for his customers.

How you can apply it: Too many businesses get stuck trying to sell customers what they need instead of what they want.

If you’re a copywriter and your customers think branding is a luxury that’s just for huge businesses, don’t try to sell them something called branding, even if that’s what will help. Come up with a label that works for your customers, even if it’s not how you would refer to it. Whenever you can, use the language they use.

Label your products and services in a way that makes it easier for your customers to buy.

5. Offer a premium version

Christensen recently unveiled a new product — ultra-high end handmade Damascus steel shears.

There’s a lot more competition for shears than there is for “texturizing bodifier.” But Christensen knew that he had created so much good will with customers that they would be interested in seeing what he came up with.

He used his obsession for quality to develop a $500 pair of shears, tweaking the design until they were perfect.

And they sold. But much more importantly, sales of his $200 shears immediately jumped — because now those were “mid-range” shears, rather than the most expensive shears he offered.

How you can apply it: There’s some segment of your customer base — maybe it’s 2% of your buyers, maybe it’s 15 or even 20% — who want the “platinum” version of what you offer.

Create something that fulfills that craving. Add real value — with more valuable materials, with increased access to you or your staff — any way you can think of, as long as it matters to your customers.

Don’t look for how you can control costs on this one — look for how you can create an incredible result for your customers.

Then put that product where customers will see it. Even if you never sold one of your “platinum” products (although you almost certainly will), the fact that it exists will improve the perception of the rest of your line.

Try hard to make your platinum product something you really love to deliver. Make it a celebration, for both you and your customer.

How about you?

Ever find a great marketing idea in an industry totally outside your own?

Let us know about it in the comments.

About the Author: Sonia Simone is co-founder and CMO of Copyblogger Media. Follow her on twitter for more thoughts on weird businesses.

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Reader Comments (37)

  1. says

    That’s an awesome find, Sonia. You’re right, that niche isn’t common but it’s definitely a huge market. Even here my country there are a lot of people who are obsessed with taking care of their pets. Myself included.

    Enjoy the rest of your week!

  2. Tea Silvestre says

    That WAS a great find, Sonia. Thanks for sharing. Success comes at the intersections is so true. Funny – that’s the second time I’ve heard that this morning. (The Universe must be trying to tell me something…)

  3. says

    You really hit the nail on the head there with your fourth point.

    If every business in the world concerned itself only with satisfying customer *needs* there would be no high end luxury car market, no jewellery market, and no high end wine market.

    Every customer has certain desires that go unstated but are there for anybody to see. If you want to make money selling cars, don’t just play up the fact that a car is reliable and cheap, think about the different desires and yearnings that people might associate with a car, and find a car market to sell in where you can position yourself to satisfy those desires. Same thing for computers, guitars, or anything else you’re selling. As you said, there is often an intersection point between a specific market and a specific type of customer that, if you tap into it, will let you establish a niche that is truly your own.

  4. says

    Great article,Sonia, and very timely. I’m working on a post about goal setting and have found that the greatest failure area is the “intersections.” For example, if you are on a diet and you come to a menu (intersection) and there is Low Fat Jello and a Chocolate Mousse Pie staring you in the face, the Chocolate pie has a great chance of winning. In marketing, that intersection may just be a dirt path, that needs to be widened, paved, and made accessible. Take Steve Jobs and the iPad. That intersection didn’t exist. Steve and Apple had to create it and then tell us why we needed to go down that road. Now it is a super highway. Find a need and create an intersection…!

  5. says

    Hi Sonia,

    I think you’ve highlighted an often-neglected aspect of marketing. Frequently, particularly in B2B environments, we obsess about vertical markets and completely ignore the horizontal ones. Any two customers might be completely different in “typical” demographics like age, sex and income, but they may be united in their love for Doritos, their desire to buy cool shoes for their kid, and their appreciation of a local organic produce stand. Sometimes, connecting the dots horizontally is a great way to discover new growth potential.

  6. says

    Reach, positioning, and timing.

    I love this story, it just shows that there is something out there for everyone – especially in the places you don’t normally look.

    Im creating something for an industry that is not my norm right now, the thing that stuck out for me was the labelling, sometimes we just expect people to get it, big mistake.

    Like you said Sonia, use the language they use if your trying to sell a biro pen for £20 you can’t call it a biro – maybe the “shade to black, the biro that last 5 times longer than your hubby does”

    All fun and games –

  7. says

    I work with a lot of musicians and artists – helping them turn their passion into a viable and scalable business.

    Often, though, I find myself learning instead of teaching. Sometime they have all the answers, just from a different perspective. It’s all about (like you said near the beginning) being receptive to innovative ideas.

    Thanks for the great post Sonia!

  8. says

    Another great post Sonia, thank you for your continuing creative inspirational writing .

    Have a wonderful Christmas with your family and I look forward to your posts in 2012. BTW love the image of the Westie…. We’ve just added Lola ( a Westie puppy ) to our family.

  9. says

    Hi Sonia,

    Ever since reading “Switch” by Chip and Dan Heath, I’ve been keen on studying what works in other markets to learn from their success. In the book, the Heaths talk about how much more value can be gained by observing what is successful than attempting to learn lessons from what is not working. The content in this post is a great example of this.

    Thanks for the post; now it’s time to apply the lessons! :)

  10. says

    This reminds me that it takes persistence as well as smarts and knowledge to find an angle that works.

    And I like the “How you can apply it:” calls to action. I am going to steal that and hope you are flattered.



  11. says

    These are some great points covering the purpose of being in business! Sometimes it takes a little bit of a change to find something a little bit better for ourselves!

  12. says

    Hi Sonia,

    Great article I have a http://petanimals.org website on Pets and Pet Care, I would love to enter the thinking space of my visitors to find what they are searching for so I can help them fulfil there needs. How would you find out what your visitors are searching for? Best Regards Steve

  13. Jeffrey says

    Another excellent post, Sonia! Your ability to distill and communicate helpful insights is very much appreciated. Identifying a niche in which we can excel and sustain passion is key. Thanks for another year of outstanding and valuable content!

  14. says

    I sure learned a good lesson today. Interacting in an en environment as homogeneous as the the world of accounting, I’m sure our marketing could benefit from breaking the circle by borrowing from completely different businesses – and the dog beauty product business is no exception :)

  15. says

    I love this quote:

    “One of the most useful skills in business is to be able to look at what someone else is doing in an unrelated topic, and bring it to your own online marketing.”

    The cool thing for bloggers is that there are so many niches online in which people are developing creative ways to start businesses. We can learn so much from a little research.

    I love the idea of studying offline businesses as well. I find that it is really helpful to visually map out the model and see how it compares to your own business model. (And if you don’t have a business model for your website, why have you been wasting your time?)

    Thanks for taking us through this exercise Sonia!

  16. says

    Very clever post. I do many times try to implement what i see on the real world, online. All jobs have something in common. HUMANS. All jobs need humans to be done. So it is very easy to find similarities or ways to implement a good characteristic from one job to another and finally get results. Continue the good job Sonia

  17. says

    I love #1 – Success comes at the intersections. I’m reading Steve Jobs’ biography right now. He saw himself – and Apple, by extension – at the intersection of technology and the humanities. Everything interesting happens at the edges – also known as intersections. Wildlife congregates there. Mathematical phenomena occur there. Unique businesses are formed there.

  18. says

    WOW, what a great article. Enough for me to motivate myself. I liked all the points and his style of doing business. I’ll definitely think to do such kind of profitable business.
    thanks Sonia :)

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