The Power of Unpopular author Erika Napoletano on why unpopular is better
It seems counterintuitive for a business book to tout the virtues of unpopularity, but author Erika Napoletano has thoroughly embraced the concept of unpopularity -- which is not a pejorative term, as she explains in the Q&A that follows. Basically, unpopularity means you don't have mass appeal for everyone, which in turn means that the small, fierce demographic that really gets your business will love you fiercely. And that's what you want, right?
The author, who will sign her new book at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 9, at the Tattered Cover LoDo, recently spoke with us about how the book came to be...and about writing most of The Power of Unpopular at the Tattered Cover on Colfax.
Westword: Can you tell us how this book came to be?
Erika Napoletano: The biggest thing for me in writing the book was that we operate with this really juvenile definition of what "unpopular" really means. It's not a pejorative or anything bad. Growing up, getting picked last for kickball or not being one of the "cool kids" was an uncomfortable place to be. But when you get into the business world, none of that matters. What matters most is building a brand for a specific audience and realizing that not even Walmart has something for everyone.
When you think about the most well known brands in your world, it doesn't matter if you think of your favorite local coffee house or a raging behemoth with a store in every city. Every one of those brands has its critics and people who will never step foot inside -- but that hasn't hindered their success. So why the hell are smart business people trying to build a business to be popular when they should be doing the exact opposite?
It's interesting that you chose the word "unpopular" to describe this concept. Does any of this tie into the idea of popularity as the ultimate status symbol in high school, and how that doesn't mean anything once you graduated?
Honestly -- how much good did being "popular" do you in school if you happened to fall into that category? The cheerleaders were unpopular with the geeks. The geeks were unpopular with the football team. The football team was unpopular with the freaks. Pull your head out of your ass and grow up. When's the last time you saw a resume or LinkedIn profile with "prom king" in the list of accomplishments? No one cares.
If you're building something designed to be popular, all you're doing is being the slutty girl that half your college class slept with and no one wanted to marry. That's because there's no focus. There's no exclusivity. And that lacks appeal -- it's no different in business. Being unpopular is about honoring your audience -- and that's a business principle that will withstand every economic condition.
What were you like in high school?
I was a total nerd. I wasn't one of the popular kids, never had the coolest clothes. I don't think I had one pair of designer jeans until maybe seventh or eighth grade, and it was a treat. I was an academic all through school, and it shocked people. I was one of those goth kids, wore black all the time, hair was bleached white, hung out with what a lot of people considered riff-raff -- but we were just super-smart kids who worked jobs and did our own thing. It was so funny -- they had this honor graduates' reception at my high school that's supposed to be a big secret. The parents show up and the kids get pulled out of second period and that's when you find out who graduated with honors. I walked in and one of the jocks said, "What are you doing here?" And I said, "Graduating above you." And it was the god's honest truth.
Can you explain to us how the book is structured and what people can expect from it?
There are five key steps in the book that take people through the process of building an unpopular brand, but it all begins with identifying your audience. It's brand- building 101; if you don't know to whom you're talking, you're not talking to anyone.
The illustration that I give in the book is from a colleague who beautifully illustrates the point: Imagine a road. You can drive on the left side or the right side, but if you stand in the middle, you're going to get killed. It's no different with brands. Have a bloody opinion, for all that's holy. Everyone in your life, from parents to friends to the clerk at the grocery store who doesn't know you from Eve has an opinion!
People have this strange perception that brands aren't supposed to be human. The truth is that people do business as people -- humans. Brands need to be human, which means your brand needs to have an opinion.
But will you piss some people off when you state your opinion? Inevitably. So get over it. You pissed someone off or disagreed about something the last time you did anything but eat dinner alone. You disagree with people all the time, but you still respect them. Great brands -- unpopular brands -- become experts in cultivating cultures of respect.
Anything else you'd like to add?
Sure -- if you want to sit down and have a banana milkshake or grilled cheese sandwich with a gal who's lactose intolerant, that's me. Give me a shout. But when it comes to the book, it's not for somebody who wants a business hug.
You wont' find buzzwords, "overarching ideas" or "pivots" (how I detest the word "pivot") when you open the cover. You'll find case studies of business just like yours and the ones you want to build. They're all privately-owned and range from a hardware empire built by a Mennonite missionary to an appliance store in New Jersey that only has one location and consistently kills pricing (and service) from Home Depot, Best Buy, and other national retailers. They're the reason this book was able to happen and they have some incredible insights to share on what worked, what's working, and what never will if you're looking to build a brand with staying power. You can learn more about the book at www.unpopularbook.com.
And I just love that I had a publisher who said, "Hey, Erika, I love what you do." And I actually wrote more than 60 percent of the book sitting in the Tattered Cover on Colfax!
Visit erikenapoletano.com to learn more about the author and her life philosophy.
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