Niche products

Winkletter  •  21 Sept 2023   •    

I watched an interesting 2-hour video about 12 Jobs That Take A Lifetime To Master. In fact, I watched it again today in order to take notes. How do such companies survive in a world focused on mass-production, low-skill labor, and planned/perceived obsolescence?

The jobs are mostly niche, traditional arts that continue to exist despite modern business practices. Not surprisingly, half were Japanese.

  • Japanese Calligraphy Brushes: Handcrafted brushes tailored to individual calligraphy artists, using high-quality goat hairs.
  • Moroccan Zellige Tiles: Handmade tiles with unique shapes and shades, created through a meticulous multistep process.
  • Tyrian Purple: A rare dye extracted from a specific snail gland through intensive labor and research.
  • Japanese Denim: Premium jeans produced traditionally using natural indigo dye and woven on heritage looms.
  • Damascus Knives: Steel knives crafted with intricate layered patterns, showcasing the blacksmith’s skill and mastery.
  • Japanese Iron Kettles: Handmade cast iron kettles with distinctive “arare” dot patterns, emphasizing aesthetics over convenience.
  • Bangjja Yugi (Korean Bronzeware): Premium handcrafted bronzeware made in a company also producing mass-market versions.
  • Bellerby and Co. Globemakers: Custom-made, hand-painted globes meticulously crafted by a team of artisans and cartographers.
  • Ceremonial Grade Matcha: High-quality matcha produced from the first shaded leaves, processed and ground to perfection.
  • Miyazaki Mangoes: Premium mangoes cultivated for optimal size and ripeness, auctioned for high prices.
  • "Ethical" Foie Gras: Foie gras produced from geese raised with ethical and traditional practices, differing from mainstream methods.
  • Olive Wagyu: Beef with enhanced flavor and texture resulting from feeding cattle with olive by-products.

Many of the crafts rely on skills and knowledge passed down through generations. The continuity of such professions often rests on the younger generation’s willingness and ability to carry forward the tradition. Interestingly, some businesses, like the makers of Japanese calligraphy brushes, are not threatened by a lack of demand but by supply constraints. This shows the importance of sustaining all aspects of a business, not just the customer base.

Several products, like Tyrian purple dye and olive wagyu, emphasize the importance of sustainability. They need to ensure that they don’t exhaust the resources they rely on.

Traditional businesses often face challenges from mass-produced alternatives. The Japanese iron kettles business, for instance, struggles against cheap knock-offs. But, consumers, particularly those looking for authenticity, are willing to pay premium prices. This is evident in the case of Japanese denim, Japanese iron kettles, and bangjja yugi (Korean bronzeware.)

Some businesses have innovated within their traditional frameworks to create unique offerings. The “ethical” foie gras and olive wagyu examples show how producers can adapt and innovate, setting their products apart in the market. The use of computer-generated designs for Moroccan zellige tiles and Bellerby and Co. Globemakers indicates a merger of modern technology with traditional craftsmanship. This combination can lead to precision and consistency without compromising the essence of the craft.

Thankfully, the rising global demand for handcrafted products, as seen in Moroccan zellige tiles and ceremonial grade matcha, indicates a trend where people value craftsmanship, authenticity, and the human touch in an increasingly automated world.

The five main lessons from this video might be:

  1. Quality Over Quantity: Craftsmanship inherently emphasizes quality. For niche, hands-on businesses, it’s often more about creating a few exceptional products than mass-producing average ones. The product’s superiority becomes its unique selling proposition.
  2. Storytelling is Essential: The backstory, the tradition, the meticulous process—these are all vital parts of the product’s allure. Effective storytelling can make customers feel connected and invested in the product.
  3. Cultivate a Loyal Customer Base: Target audiences who appreciate and value craftsmanship, authenticity, and tradition. They’ll be willing to pay a premium and can become advocates for the brand.
  4. Embrace Modern Technology, but Don’t Rely on It: Using technology to aid the crafting process (like computer-aided designs) can enhance precision, but the hands-on touch should remain central to the product.
  5. Niche Markets are Global: With the internet and global shipping, niche products can find audiences worldwide. One doesn’t need to cater to the masses locally when a dedicated audience can be anywhere.