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Guest Column by James F. Richardson, Ph.D., of The Hartman Group

Among business types, evangelism has been a catchy little buzz word in recent years. Evangelistic movements generally do three important things: 1) spread promises of individual transformation to the masses, 2) feature a key symbol (i.e. the cross) and values/ideals attached to it and 3) promise solutions to one or more fundamental human dilemmas: death, finding happiness, etc.

On the frontline of these movements stand the evangelists. As a special form of preacher, their job is to bring the movement's message to those who have never heard it or to those who remain undecided. They translate core values to those who stand peripheral to them. But this act of translation is a tricky art.

Evangelists often overestimate the power of the word to persuade people and tend to downplay the way that their own face-to-face interactions with others affect the perception of the movement they represent. They also tend to push too hard for quick acceptance of hard-to-understand core values and concepts. The most successful are those who patiently generate interest in the everyday rituals and key symbols of the movement itself and who bring new people in to its ritual spaces where they can slowly attach their own meanings to the movement's key symbols. The best evangelists, in this sense, are really docents, not zealously didactic preachers trying to prevent dissent from the get go.

Many niche markets today draw their original sales momentum from catering to various idealistic social movements or worlds of activity; the organic food movement is just one example. A grocery store, for example, could prominently declare its unique corporate values by painting mission statements inside every store. A brief consumer perusal would reveal the store's interest in promoting organic and natural foods is grounded strongly in a desire to "foster environmentally sustainable, small-scale, local agriculture." But does everyone who habitually purchases food at this grocery store really see the word "organic" and "natural" the same way? Do they necessarily even see the retailer as an organic food store? We can begin to see here that, if a retailer has an overly narrow view of their own brand and/or products, they could easily ignore the presence of otherwise loyal customers whose values don't correspond with the company's core mission and thereby with its assumptions about how consumers actually value its offerings. This misperception could lead to marketing and staffing decisions that offend this silent, hidden customer base.

Lesson 1: Re-Examine Your Core Values
In the world of religious movements, things always tend to broaden after the central charismatic figure passes away (e.g., it was Paul, not Jesus, that turned Jesus's message into a global missionary religion). But there is good news: Letting go of core values does not mean they need to be forsaken. The art in growing one's niche centers on isolating which of your brand's core values have the potential for behavioral incorporation across multiple lifestyle orientations. Core values aimed at transforming the social world have little potential here. And neither do core values that demand a high cost of entry, in terms of self-sacrifice, to incorporate into one's life. Appealing to everyday sensory experience (e.g., what tastes good and what looks good) is, by far, the easiest route to expanding your niche.

Lesson 2: Empathize with Those Outside the Core
Do your research. Not the kind with huge Excel spreadsheets sorting consumer perceptions of your brand by demographic category or psychographic traits. Hang out with your their they shop...where they work. Chat with them as much about their everyday lives, behaviors and values as about your brand or products. If you do, you'll better understand the lived context of consumer product use that is the real shaper of consumer loyalty. Find out why your customers are attracted to your brand and/or retail offerings and listen most carefully to those whose attraction involves the perceived betterment of their everyday lives (emotional, physical, even spiritual). Listen carefully to stories about how products and retail environments enhance consumers' perception of control over everyday tasks as well as their sensual enjoyment of everyday life itself. These are the stories of short-term benefits, your toe-holds in the effort to climb out of your niche.

Lesson 3: Create Compelling Experiences
Retail environments are the key to communicating your brand's specific promise to transform everyday worlds of activity. Stores need to be staffed by those at the core of your brand's niche. Their excitement, knowledge and enthusiasm is critical. Retail environments should also demonstrate, like good anthropological exhibits, how products can be integrated into everyday life and how they will enhance that everyday experience. Don't just preach your brand's potential for transforming consumers' everyday social lives, bring demonstrate the possibility for transformation inside the shopping experience. In specialty grocery stores, for example, this can be done with ornate cooking stations where daily, culinary 'miracles' transpire. IKEA already does this well in its set-up of fully furnished mock rooms in which shoppers can physically experience what it will be like to own various pieces of IKEA furniture.

Lesson 4: Create a Soft Entry
The fastest growing religious movements in America are those that create a highly democratic, congenial, neighborly transition from the outside world into their often odd-seeming, ritual spaces. They forefront a middle-America congeniality that refuses to gatekeep new members based on their social class, style of dress, level of education, etc. They demonstrate a constant empathy with those just getting involved through the use of humble narratives of their own "conversion." Those who pretend to a saintly status, and never discuss their "life before," either intimidate or offend. The worst possible situation for persuading consumer "conversions" is one where a retail environment conveys such an elitist "attitude." For years, this has plagued the natural foods co-op. Many simply don't understand that a grocery store is not a church - even a co-op. It is absurd to expect people to submit to any particular value set just because they come in to shop at your store. New customers have no way of readily understanding a niche retailer's core values as they would in a religious institution. Successful niche brands create loyalty best without moral pretense, without any demanding, overly self-sacrificial, idealism and without condescending to new consumers who don't fully comprehend the company's core vision. Retail staff who adhere to the core need to be well trained to empathize with those beyond it in order to assure a soft entry for all.

More tomorrow…

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