As part of my university degree, studying French and Spanish, I spent a year in Southern France teaching English. I also attended the University of Toulouse one day a week where I took a history of art course. In one of the modules, we studied the Impressionist movement. Creating a Niche: What The Impressionists Teach Us About Not Following The Crowd

While the Impressionists are famous now, and their paintings sell for millions of pounds, this was not always the case. In fact they spent most of their lives in obscurity and poverty before becoming the best-known artists in the world. When they weren't painting, they spent their free time discussing art in a Parisian café. None of the artists were well-known, and they struggled to find anyone to buy their works.

The reason the Impressionists found it so difficult to sell their art was because rigorous standards for taste and what was considered to be 'good art' were set by the Académie des Beaux-Arts, which ran an annual exhibition called the Salon de Paris.

Works were expected to be microscopically accurate, properly ‘finished’ and formally framed, with proper perspective and all the familiar artistic conventions.”

In other words artists were expected to paint huge scenes of battle or portraits of beautiful ladies, in realistic detail and set their paintings off in an ornate frame.

The Impressionists however wanted to paint differently. They refused to comply with the conventions of the day so they painted scenes from everyday life. They used un-blended colours, brushstrokes were visible and figures were indistinct.

Unfortunately for the Impressionists, the rest of the world only paid attention to those painters who were selected to exhibit at the Salon. The Salon effectively controlled the marketplace. Artists whose work was selected saw their reputations and the value of their paintings soar. Everybody else had their paintings ignored. This meant living in relative obscurity and mired in poverty. There is a story that once Monet could not afford to buy food and Renoir had to bring him bread so that he would not starve.

Emperor Napoleon III saw the rejected works of 1863 and decided that the public should be allowed to judge the work themselves. The Salon des Refusés was created. While many visitors came only to laugh, the Salon des Refusés drew attention to other artistic schools. More importantly it attracted more visitors than the regular Salon, proving their was a market for Impressionist art.

As the artists' petitions requesting further Salons des Refusés were denied, Monet, Renoir, Degas and several other artists founded the Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs in order to exhibit their artworks independently.  After years of trying and being thwarted, the Impressionists changed tack. Instead of trying so hard to get into the Salon, they opted instead to take control and hold their own exhibition instead.

In total, thirty artists participated in their first exhibition, which was held in April 1874 at the studio of the photographer Nadar. The exhibition was a hit, attracting 3,500 visitors, and the artists were able to sell some of their works. Impressionist art went on to become a huge commercial success, especially once the Parisian art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel recognised its artistic and fashionable potential.

The moral of this story is that it is better to be a big fish in a small pond than to be a small fish in the ocean.

Instead of following the crowd, take control of your business and your future, and do something different to the mainstream. If everybody is doing the same thing, the marketplace becomes insanely competitive and difficult to penetrate. Unless you have substantial financial resources to fund brand building and marketing while you build market share.  Where others go right, you go left.

Last week, I wrote about how Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop, went left when everybody else went right. When Anita first set up The Body Shop, she went against the prevailing beauty trends and culture. She occupied what, at the time, was a small niche - ethical natural beauty. But through relentless campaigning and PR, Anita was able to amplify her message. and expand the size of her niche.

So how can you this apply to your business? Here are four ways you can go left while others go right.

1. Look To The Future

Use SWOT and PESTLE analyses to look at current and future trends in your industry. Think Apple. Start developing products and services that will have relevance in the future.

2. Conduct A Competitor Analysis

Look at what your competitors are doing now, and consider whether they have a strategy for the future or whether they are doing 'the same old, same old.' Are they a brand looking to the future or in danger of getting stuck in their ways? Now take these insights, and apply them to your business.

3. Build YOUR Brand

How can you present yourself differently to the rest of the industry? We all have a brand, whether we've created it intentionally or not. One of my favourite cafes down on the Sussex coast, Ginger and Dobbs, has its own distinctive aesthetic and its menu is based on local produce. Their concept is unique, but they could also easily duplicate it because they have created a distinctive brand.

4. Corner A Niche Within Your Market?

Chrissie Rucker did just that with The White Company. At the time Chrissie started The White Company, 50% of sales in the UK were for white bedding. A sizeable market share. But to really stand out, Chrissie didn't simply sell white linens. She created a niche within the luxury end of the white linen market.

Join The Conversation

Question: In your business, have you gone left while others were going right? How did this work out for you? I love reading your feedback so please do let me know in the comments box below.

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I’m Denyse Whillier, a London based business coach and consultant. I guide entrepreneurs from across the globe to achieve profitable, scaleable growth and create businesses that are Built To Succeed™. Built To Succeed™ is my proven success system, developed during my 8 years in the trenches as a CEO, 25 years’ experience at senior leadership and managerial level and training at Cranfield School of Management, the UK’s leading business school. It’s this background that sets me apart and helps my clients to get BIG results.

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