A friend of mine used to tell her kids, “I don’t care how well you do in school, just so long as you’re popular.” She was joking, of course, but this joke perfectly highlights the problem with popularity: It’s not about being smart or industrious or resourceful or different. It’s about fitting in and conforming.
If anyone has understood this, it’s this week’s guest on Marketing Smarts, Erika Napoletano, author of the forthcoming book, The Power of Unpopular. As someone who prides herself on being unpopular and “causing trouble,” Erika puts it rather succinctly, “Popular is the last thing that smart business people should want to be.”
“That’s crazy,” I hear you say. “I want as many people as possible to like my business. I want to be popular!”
OK, but hold your horses. While it’s true, in the abstract, that companies want a lot of customers, if you think about it for a second, you’ll realize that most companies don’t want to (and, as a practical matter, could not) serve everyone all the time. On the contrary, truly successful businesses (even those that eventually become popular with a large chunk of the population, such as Apple) don’t cater to the masses at all. Instead, they focus on a very specific audience and essentially ignore everyone else.
As in the case of Apple, this can come off as a kind of elitism and be alienating to people (“I hate those stuck-up Apple users! They think they’re better than everybody!”). Erika’s point is that you actually want this to happen. The key to success in business, especially when you’re starting out, is to find that small core of people who will be your fans and advocates, and work as hard as you can to be popular with them, even when (or especially when) that means being unpopular with the multitude.
It’s not about being unlikable and unpopular with everyone, however (it’s hard to move product when you are universally hated). Rather, it’s about having a clear sense of who you are, what your company is about, and, as Erika says, “building a product and a service that’s going to serve the audience that you seek to serve.”
If you have a distinct purpose and you stand for something specific, then there are always going to be those on the other side who disagree with and dismiss you and what you’re doing. The important thing to remember is, if you have the right people on your side (the customers that appreciate and support you), then those other people don’t matter.
So, do you still want to be popular? Or are you ready to tread the harrowing but rewarding path of unpopularity? If not, what’s stopping you?