Mentioning them, turning them around, and avoiding them

Where does the time go? The clocks have gone forward, spring has sprung and once again it’s over to Copycam, where my random happy (and not-so-happy) snaps take the place of words. Mentioning the competition is always  a thorny topic. If you do, you run the risk of seeming defensive, and you may just raise a doubt or plant a seed that grows in your neighbour’s garden. If you don’t, you could appear complacent. So what’s the middle path? As always, it’s to tread lightly and do it with style and insouciance. Much like Eat, the fast-food chain did recently. They didn’t directly mention the competition. Instead, they let somebody else do it for them. Time Out, the London listings mag that’s been around for ever, summed it up succinctly: And it’s on 100% recycled paper – could they be more virtuous? (Or more smug?) A third-party endorsement is always better than talking directly about your competitors. It carries more weight, seems more independent, and keeps you on the moral high ground. Which is just where you want to be. Lesson 1: when it comes to the competition, tread softly (and let somebody else carry a big stick).

Back from the brink

Remember Northern Rock? Who doesn’t. Back in 2007, as they looked increasingly close to collapse, they were at the centre of the first run on a British bank since 1866. Long queues formed outside branches countrywide, as worried savers rushed to withdraw their hard-earned money. Bad karma – and even worse PR. Northern Rock turned into a toxic brand, that nobody would touch. So the government was forced to step in and nationalise it. A hopeless case, you’d think. And yet, last November Virgin Money took a deep breath and forked out £747m (that’s $1.1bn, give or take) for it. Why? Because it had reached rock bottom (pardon the pun) and was a good bargain. And because Virgin’s fairy dust can work miracles. They’ve now started rebranding the branches, as I saw last week in Cambridge: Zoom in and you’ll see this: First come the decals in the window. Next will be a total makeover. And before long, Northern Rock will slowly sink into the ground, leaving nothing but Virgin territory. As Freddie said, it’s a kind of magic. Brand magic. Lesson 2: never underestimate the power of brand.

Circles within circles

Some brands, ideas and businesses, however, are beyond help. Niche products and services are a great idea: you serve a specific sector of the market, and you become the go-t0 person for that niche. You don’t try to be all things to all people, but focus on one area, knowing that it’s a profitable one. And that’s the key. It’s got to be profitable. Which is why you should always do your homework to make sure your niche is big enough to support your business.  If not, expand the niche – otherwise your business model will very quickly become unsustainable. As did that of Hawkin’s Bazaar in Cambridge. It sold the sort of odd things you see in those catalogues that fall out of your favourite magazines: reading lights on headbands, lava lamps with built-in speaking clocks and odd-shaped back-scratchers. More bizarre than bazaar. In fact, I marvelled that it was still standing in the worst economic downturn since the 30s. Not any longer. Last week, I saw it had closed. Ironically, its tagline foretold its destiny: Those things had gone for ever for a reason. And people never knew they existed because they didn’t need to. Lesson 3: niches are good. Just make sure they’re not niche niches.