mini_bbq

There are a few things you’re never supposed to do when pitching your startup. Case in point: when someone says, “well I just don’t see myself using this”, you never ever ever say, “well then I guess it’s not for you.” But you should.

Now, I’m going to make my apology before I make my point, because most of us don’t read to the bottom. It’s really important to be able to pitch to people, and to assume they’re all potential customers. You’d better know your value proposition like the back of your hand before you start telling people your product “isn’t for them.” I’m not saying you should alienate people for the sheer hell of it and then walk away from the conversation. If you read to the bottom, I promise this will make a lot more sense :)

When I worked for MINI at the outset of their big comeback (2002, for you millenials out there), we had a Brand Identity doc that described how the car should be marketed. One of the very first statements in that document was this:

THE MINI IS NOT CUTE.

Not cute? Sorry, let me just soak that in for a second: a tiny clown car with big bubbly eyes and a speedometer the size of your head isn’t cute? Why would anyone even pretend to say that? Why wouldn’t you capitalize on what everyone was thinking when they looked at this car?

Because the people marketing the MINI were smart.

In the automotive market, something that is “cute” will have the following effect:

  • Women will love it, but men will refuse to buy it. 50% of your demographic is immediately crushed. This is important to understand, because it doesn’t work the other way around: women DO covet aggressive, angry looking cars. The reason most sports cars, Hummers, etc. aren’t owned by women is because the vehicle is economically impractical, not because it’s brutal-looking.
  • Its cuteness will outlive its welcome at some point, and sales will nosedive. You can’t play that card forever. It’s much easier to iterate on quality than it is to iterate on cuteness — just ask Britney Spears.

The MINI had a lot going for it – build quality, great handling, racing heritage, surprising practicality and economy – so playing up its “cuteness” would just detract from the things that actually made it a valuable investment. Furthermore, VW released the New Beetle that year, and the Beetle was most certainly touting itself as cute. The choice to compete by being the “not cute one” was a long-term strategy by MINI at the expense of easy first-year sales… they were going to take on the difficult task of convincing men to buy this super-cute car because of its other strengths. So, how’d it work out?

VW sold 50,000 Bugs in 2002. Seven years later, it was selling 14,000.
MINI sold 25,000 Coopers in 2002. Seven years later, it was selling 45,000.

The lesson is this: target market is not always obvious. Know which part of your market needs to be won over, and which part doesn’t. Plenty of early naysayers will line up for your product down the road when their friends are laughing at them for being out of the loop; you’re wasting time if you’re trying to win over those people. Keep your focus on the right customers.

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