"Popular is the last thing smart business people should want to be."
At least that's the firmly held belief of Erika Napoletano, author of the forthcoming book The Power of Unpopular, and this week's guest on Marketing Smarts. But whatever could she mean? And why would any smart businessperson set out to be unpopular?
"If you ever had an inkling of 'unpopular' in your life," she explains, "You were kind of starting from a disadvantage. You didn't have a herd of people supporting you in whatever you wanted to do."
"It made you pretty darn resourceful."
Going for "popular" in business, as in life, often means dumbing things down, seeking the lowest common denominator, and playing it safe.
By contrast, according to Erika, being unpopular means "you know who you are, you're ready to stick to your guns, and you're building a product and a service that's going to serve the audience that you seek to serve."
That last point is critical (as is her insistence that "Being unpopular doesn't mean you're a jerk"), because popularity and unpopularity are all about audience. By pursuing an unpopular path, you are actually narrowing down and refining your notion of the audience with whom you truly want to be popular after all.
In short, "Popular businesses are popular with all the right people and unpopular with everyone who doesn't really matter."
Unpopularity thus brings with it a sense of clarity and focus. It also requires bravery (when you are unpopular, some will quite actively dislike you) and the humility that, in her words, "comes with trying anything new."
There is a power in this humility, however, because, she goes on to say, "Humility means you're open to receiving input from the outside to make whatever you're doing better. And arrogance is when you turn that channel off."
Such openness is also a reminder that, when we are going into business or trying to reinvent a business, we have to let the world (or that part of the world that we're hoping to do business with) guide us. You have to expect, and be prepared to roll with, the unexpected—because, as any entrepreneur will tell you, the business they found success in was not necessarily the business they initially set out to build.
"You can plan and plan and plan," Erika insists, and such planning is necessary to ensure that you are laying a firm foundation for whatever it is you're building, but there comes a moment when you have to take a leap of faith and then allow your customers to show you what will work and what won't.
If all this talk of bravery, humility, and faith smacks of the "touchy feely," let me assure you that The Power of Unpopular is a remarkably practical book rife with examples drawn from the entrepreneurial trenches (and examples, I might add, that will be quite new to you: There's nary a mention of Southwest Airlines or Zappos to be found).
That said, the combination of hard-nosed business savvy and disarmingly human openness is part and parcel of the Erika Napoletano brand. It also characterizes the conversation we had on Marketing Smarts, which you can find it iTunes, listen to via the audio player at the end of this article, or download here:
So, what could you do to make yourself—your company, your brand—more unpopular?
Erika, author of the popular and sometimes scandalous RedHeadWriting blog, will be teaching the blogging class as part of the MarketingProfs University writing course in May.
If you'd like to download a transcript of this episode, you may do so here.