What we can learn about niches from penguins
By Carolyn McMurray, SOCIATE’s Junior Copywriter & Blogstar
You might have thought niches were confined to the corporate world of agencies and power suits, but did you know it stretches as far as the savannas of Africa?
I’m going to propose something a little wild. Animals are the true founders of the word ‘niche.’ We might have put a name to the concept, but they’ve been practicing it far longer. They might not be raking in the cash or wearing suits to work, but they’ve got niches. An ecological niche, that is. And the same principles of the business world apply: competition, survival, specialisation, and generalisation. Still confused? Let’s take a deep dive into the animal kingdom.
What are ecological niches?
An ecological niche refers to the position of a species within an ecosystem, and all the conditions necessary for survival. Take emperor penguins, for example. They’ve adapted to hunting and living in cold temperatures and their main food sources are fish and crustaceans. These factors all determine their ecological niche: AKA, the cold, southern hemisphere. Lions, on the other hand, have adapted to hunting on the warm, sunny plains of Africa. It’s clear that environmental conditions play a big part in determining which animals are matched to what niche, and they’re generally split into two categories: specialists and generalists. But how does this tie into our business world?
You’ve probably heard the terms ‘generalist’ and ‘specialist’ before, and though animals don’t exactly do business, their role as specialists and generalists are pretty much the same as ours. Let’s look back at our earlier example of lions and emperor penguins. Both animals are specialists. In other words, they’ve adapted to live in their specific environments. If we swapped roles and had penguins live in the savannah and vice versa, neither would survive too long.
That’s what makes them specialists.
They’re amazing at living in their own environment and know exactly how to thrive in unique circumstances, but put them in a different territory and their survival rate plummets. The great thing about specialists though? They’re real fighters and know their habitat like the back of their hand. They might not be ‘in the know’ about multiple regions, but they’re the experts and professors of their homeland.
They’re also just super cool. White peafowls, fairy penguins, sunburst diving beetles. Now that’s an eclectic mix.
But how does this translate into business?
You see, specialists of the animal kingdom are a lot like those quaint seaside shops you walk past when you’re on holiday. The candy store that only sells retro sweets from the ‘50s. The bakery that makes nothing but pecan pie. The hot chocolate shop that only makes…hot chocolate. They’ve all got something in common; a strong niche. Pecan pies, retro candies, and bomb hot chocolates. The opposite of all that would be the massive restaurant and coffee shop chains. And those are called generalists.
Generalists are a tad different. They can live in multiple climes and environments. They can also chomp on a wide variety of food. They’re highly adaptable and can survive in multiple ecosystems. The only downside to their superhuman abilities? Lots of competition from other generalists. They’re sort of like the Amazons, Cokes, and Apples of the animal kingdom. It just so happens that rats, slugs, and pigeons are also notorious generalists, so yeah…
The giants of the business world are a bit like rats and slugs.
Penguins and niches
Let’s take a closer look at emperor penguins. We already know that they’ve adapted to the Polar environment and that they’re ‘experts’ at catching fish and swimming in the cold depths of the Antarctic. We also know that putting them in the Sahara or savannah would probably plunge their population into a crisis.
So, what else? The one thing that they teach us about a niche is that there’s always a trade-off. They might be experts at sub-zero temperatures and only have a handful of predators, but they’re stuck. They can’t explore other territories outside their Polar zone otherwise they won’t survive. This means giving up on chances of extra food and a warmer clime, but they’ll face less competition out in the Arctic.
Whether you decide to go down a generalist or specialist route, there’ll always be something you’re giving up. If you decide to specialise, that means giving up a slice of the hugely popular, always-in-demand market for a slightly smaller pool of customers. If you go down the generalist route, that means being in heavy competition with the big-name players. It’s exactly the same with penguins.
To niche or not to niche
So, which is better? To choose a niche or venture into generalist territory? Emperor Penguins teach us that neither option is better than the other – it all depends on your circumstances. It’s easier to be a specialist if you’re in an industry with a smaller pool of customers, but if you’ve got a dazzling business idea that’s not yet on the market, becoming a generalist might be the smarter thing to do.
If you’re stuck in an industry that’s dominated by giants, then it’s much easier to specialise. Let’s say you’re bringing to market a new soda. What’s the first thing that pops into your head? Coke. Pepsi. Fanta. That’s going to be a hard market to crack. There’s already lots of competition, and the scene is dominated by industry giants. Your best bet? Pick a niche within the soda industry to appeal to a smaller group of customers. Don’t just market yourself as a fizzy drink. Market yourself as the healthiest fizzy drink on the market, made with fresh fruit juice and mineral water. That’s specialism and in this case, it works in your favour.
Very important takeaway of everything you just read
I could wrap this up with a quick once-over of everything I’ve just said but that’s pretty boring. I thought I’d do what any copywriter is NOT supposed to do and shoehorn in a couple of random penguin facts because…penguins. Everybody loves penguins 🐧
-Fairies do exist. The fairy penguin isn’t exactly a-la Tinkerbelle but it’s 30cm tall, bottle blue, and does sort of fly (that’s if you count nose-diving into the ocean)
-Their eyes are water filters. Ok, not quite. They haven’t got a giant jug sticking out of their retina, but they have got an internal filtering system above their eyes that lets them chug seawater and transform it into pure, unadulterated H20
-Ever heard of the Macaroni penguin? Yep. Me neither. But they’re a real thing, and their yellow crests are something to be envied.
And PS – there’s one thing specialists and generalists do have in common. They both need a winning marketing strategy to set themselves apart from the crowd. If you’re in need of some dazzling copy or a social media makeover, hit us up at [email protected].