By Alexander Westgarth, CEO and founder of Westgarth Wines.
Niche brands have a built-in advantage that larger companies have to spend more money (a lot more money) to equal, nevermind exceed. Businesses that provide a specific service to a specific clientele have a readily identifiable community to sell to. For niche companies, it is not necessary to do market research about what your consumers want, though you should figure out how to best communicate your brand message to your audience. A niche does not negate the importance of speaking to and providing customers with respect, critical judgment and informational content.
My job is to help consumers, not hinder their search for a particular product (premium wine) with distractions or excessive promotions. I do that by giving them information that results in an informed purchase.
My job also involves being proactive, not reactive, by answering the needs of my consumers because I take the time to anticipate what they want. Every niche brand can only retain its status and maintain its credibility if it has an ongoing conversation with its consumers. Indeed, sometimes a simple phone call (not a sales call per se, but a call to someone who is a major source of your sales) can do more for the good of your business than any other act of goodwill.
My job, then, is to listen and learn and teach. Call it a meeting of the minds or a means to clarify our wants so we may commence with the understanding that what must be done will be done. Again, this is a matter of communication. If I do not ask my consumers what they want, I cannot give them what they need.
No brand, niche or mainstream, can be dismissive toward this issue -- consumers can (and will) go elsewhere to get what they want. You do not need to attempt to read minds to see the writing on the virtual wall, so to speak. You need only visit the message boards and social media sites (the review sites and the sites of substantial repute) where people vent their grievances or voice their support. Monitor this material to ensure the content is correct -- not to compromise your brand or unintentionally brand yourself as indifferent to your consumers' concerns.
I check industry-specific sites daily, receiving alerts when my company receives a mention or someone posts a review. A month ago, I answered a question from a potential customer. Hers was less a complaint than it was an expression of concern regarding another merchant's evasiveness about the cost of a particular case of wine. I let her know that vintage had and still has a high-profit margin. Prices not only vary but they vary considerably, from expensive to too expensive for even the richest expense accounts. We spoke for an hour. The next day, she called me to confirm that it was, in fact, expensive and to thank me for my help navigating the process. She is now one of our regular customers.
You do not have to host focus groups to uncover this information. If you want to remain competitive and stay ahead of the competition, you have no excuse not to do what every successful business does as a matter of course: communicate.
Communication has many forms, though it should never express itself through a form letter or the need to fill out forms. I've found that consumers are averse to such communication, while they are keen to accept information that interests them. Put another way, communication is both an issue of style and substance. Because it is not enough to give people news they can use when you can deliver the news with either an economy of words or encomiums of elegant phrases. You must keep conversing with and listening to your consumers.
Master the art of communication by mastering the art of respect and receptiveness to new ideas. Make your consumers a priority by prioritizing their demands and desires, so they have your confidence and trust. Do this, and much more, by appealing to what appeals most to your clients.
Alexander Westgarth is CEO and Founder of Westgarth Wines, a fine wine & spirit merchant specialized in investment grade wines.