A friend of mine, Constantin, had made some quite interesting thoughts about „Quality vs. Popularity“. His thoughts led him to an interesting thesis: Quality and Popularity are contradictorily, there is a war between those extremes: Something wide spread and very popular cannot fulfill quality needs.
I not fully agree with his thesis, and therefor I wrote a comment. Unfortunately, his blog systems did not accept my comment – it has it reduced to the last paragraph of eight. So I asked him to delete this paragraph, and decided to write my own article in my blog.
As an example, he uses the Apple iPhone and Android phones. Using this example he comes to the conclusion: A popular product, used by most of the people, can’t be satisfy the quality needs of everyone (esp. not himself).
Well, I’m not sure whether his example is perfect: Both technologies are niche products in my opinion, designed to fit to the needs of people needing highly customizable mobile phones with many functions. The first is focused on people seeking a easy to use, stylish and trendy phone fitting well in their Apple-centric world, the second is focused on people seeking a flexible phone with many application from a somehow „open“ community. Both concepts have pros and cons I don’t want to pursuit now.
While writing this blog post, I searched for examples for popular high quality products. I found one in my trumpet gigbag: Have a look at two trumpets: The Getzen Eterna Trumpet and the Freebell Special Bb-Trumpet. Both are quality trumpets. But the Getzen has a quite impressive market share compared to the Freebell. So, is the Getzen Trumpet not as good as the Freebell? The Getzen and the Freebell are great, I love both of them. The Eterna is sold quite a longe time, its design is from the 1960s. But Freebell is not as widely known as Getzen, Freebell is way smaler than Getzen and founded some years later. So maybe this is a reason why Freebell is not as popular as Getzen.
But I’m sure you’ll be able to find someone who will dislike both trumpets and will have completely different quality needs. These needs will be satisfied by other products, and those products will be … different.
Niche Markets and Perceived Quality
So maybe Constantin’s findings are more about niche markets. He uses quite a few examples of high quality products, and most of them are typical niche products. Most markets today have a kind of standard all products fulfill: A car can transport someone, an operating system allows you to run your computer and play solitaire, a cell phone can be used to make calls, write SMS and take photographs. And often, there are some products with those features (and a few more) as market leaders. Often these products can be seen as standard in the specific market.
Around those market leaders, there is a group of competitors, with their own products. Some of them simply copy the product of the market leader. Others try to specialize in a certain area of the market in build up their business in this area. Using differentiators and methods of customer retention (both customer loyalty and customer ligation), they try to catch customers in this niche, keeping them happy and satisfied.
As the niche products are focused on fewer, selected customers, they can be designed to better satisfy the customer needs than the mainstream products or market leader products do. So these customers perceive these products – tailored to their needs – as perfectly fitting and in the perfect quality they need. That’s why Constantin prefers the iPhone: The iPhone concept fits his needs for a flexible and easy to use phone better than the Android concept.
But implies this a low quality of the other or the mainstream product? Well, it depends: In the eye of the niche customer, the quality of the mainstream product is lower, it is not as unflawed as the (special tailored) niche product. In the eyes of the mainstream customer, the niche product has not the needed qualities: It is to specialized, has to many not needed features, is to expensive…
If you’re going to extremes, you can completely replace the mainstream products by many niche products. Doing so all customers in these niche markets will perceive the quality of their products as great. Maybe that has already happened in the trumpet market, where very many different trumpets are offered, all with slightly different features.
So, to sum it up: Mainstream does not mean low quality. Mainstream means you get a standard feature set that has proven to fit for most customers. If good enough is still good, you can life with the standard. But if there are niche products around the mainstream, it’s possible and quite probable to find something better fitting to your needs.
(And now: You will find tons of literature about deciding in this situation in your favorite library, economics section. Check out publications about decision under uncertainty, niche markets, customer retention, customer loyalty and exit costs.)