Bob Ross Can Show Entrepreneurs How To Succeed in A Saturated Market
Bob Ross can teach you how to paint — and how to position your business for success.
I’ve first heard about Bob Ross and his instructive TV show The Joy of Painting from my 12-year-old brother. That’s saying something because he was born in 2008 — more than a decade after the show stopped airing. He didn’t time-travel, that’s for sure. It’s just that Bob Ross remains an icon to this day. Even today, you’d see his face and famous words on shirts, coffee mugs, and plush toys. Deadpool even imitated him in a teaser trailer!
And last August, Netflix released the documentary Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal, and Greed.
To my surprise, I didn’t only get a glimpse of the story behind Ross’s fame and success through this film. I also learned 3 happy little ways to stand out in a saturated market.
1. Use your unique voice when talking to your audience
Bob Ross did this, literally.
Ross wasn’t the first to teach painting lessons on TV. In fact, he was inspired by William “Bill” Alexander’s The Magic of Oil Painting — the first-ever painting show on PBS. Alexander mentored Ross and taught him how to finish a landscape in 30 minutes. Ross’s painting style and business model were almost an exact copy of Alexander’s, yet most people only remember Ross.
Some say it’s because of his voice.
While Alexander talked loudly, and with unmissable energy, Ross’s voice was gentle. Almost a whisper. A writer from The Atlantic watches old The Joy of Pointing episodes to spark inspiration and get encouragement. “His calming voice helps me cut through the noise of life and focus on creating something new,” he writes.
This approach was Ross’s deliberate choice. He wanted to use a soothing voice that contrasts that of Alexander’s zealous expressions — not only to stand out, but to serve his audience better. Since most of his fans are female, he thought it’d be best to deliver his classes with a more delicate voice and make the experience as calming as a meditation practice.
- Find out how most of your competitors are approaching their audience. If it makes sense for your business (and you have the guts), do the opposite.
2. Get clear on your business model
Often confused with the term “strategy,” a business model describes how the pieces of a business fit together (Magretta, 2002). It clarifies who the customer is and how a business earns.
Bob Ross knew his audience well, and he wanted his viewers to feel like every episode was a 1:1 painting session with him. Smart move.
Though he did all 403 episodes of his show for free, Bob Ross Inc. (BRI) grew into a mammoth corporation by selling art supplies, how-to videotapes, and classes. The company has been so successful that it’s still thriving today. Ross’s videos are now monetized through his official YouTube channel (run by BRI), which now has over 4.98 million subscribers!
- Stop trying to target everyone. Focus is every successful entrepreneur’s best friend.
- Once you know who your audience is, get clear on how you’ll serve them. Don’t be swayed by shiny strategies that don’t stick in the long run.
3. Find your focus
Floral painting artists Gary And Kathwren Jenkins appeared in the documentary too.
They fondly recounted how Ross called himself “the trees and mountains guy.” Smiling, they shared how Ross would always tell his fans, “When it comes to flowers, go to the Jenkins.”
Bob Ross made friends out of his competitors. And he focused on his niche — way before the word “niche” became a marketing buzzword.
As many fans as he had, Ross was never taken seriously by the contemporary art community. Because he was on TV. Because he used the wet-on-wet technique — piling layers of paint on the canvas before any of it dried. Because critics thought his work was frivolous. Because he was everything that he was.
He seemed to be okay with that.
On a 1994 episode of The Phil Donahue Show, the host prodded the painter in front of a studio audience.
“Say out loud that your work will never hang in a museum!” Donahue shouted.
“No,” Ross said with a smile.
“Well, maybe it will, but probably not the Smithsonian.” “Why?” Donahue asked.
“This is art for anyone who’s ever wanted to put a dream on canvas,” Ross said. “It’s not traditional art. It’s not fine art. And I don’t try to tell anybody it is.”
— The Atlantic, Why Bob Ross Is Still So Popular
- You can’t be everything to your audience.
At least, not sustainably. When you reduce and specify your business operations, it becomes stronger (Ries & Trout, 1993). And when a company sells a slew of various products and ideas, “its name becomes fuzzier in the minds of its potential customers” (Rice, 2020). So know what your brand is — and what it’s not.
Even Amazon started out as a bookseller, not an “everything store.”
The Secret to Standing Out in A Saturated Market: Positioning
Blair Enns (2010) considers positioning as “the foundation of business success” (pp. 16–17). But what is it, really?
According to Al Ries, author and marketing professional, it’s “owning a word in the mind.” Like claiming a spot in your customer’s mind and putting up a signpost with your name and unique value on it.
Ideally, no one else can stick the same signpost on that same spot. Otherwise, you’re not being as specific as you thought.
The goal is not to be better than one’s competitors, though. Instead, you have to be distinct from the rest of them.
“Positioning is a strategy used by businesses in order to solidify their brand or their business in the minds of their potential customers. When a potential customer thinks of the brand or business name, he or she can associate that name to a very specific value that the business is giving.”
— Gabriel De Luna, President and CEO, Prodigy Digital Agency Inc.
In a conversation with our President and CEO Gabriel de Luna, he shares that while many situations call for a well-positioned brand, there can be some cases where you’d want your brand to be generic. It depends on your style and the value you want to bring to the market. There’s no right or wrong — just a choice to be made. And either way, there are trade-offs.
Realities to Accept When You Choose To Be A Generalist
- Price wars are inevitable.
You have lots of competition. You become a commodity, so you cannot easily command price.
- Efficiency is your religion.
In order to be profitable, you need volume. You have to scale, fast.
Realities to Accept When You Choose To Be A Well-Positioned Business
- You have to be wasteful.
To specialize and innovate, you have to spend most of your time and resources doing and mastering one thing.
- You can’t say yes to everyone.
Once you’ve chosen to focus on one specialization, your market size diminishes. The upside to this? You can become the top choice in your chosen niche. That means smaller market size but bigger market share.
…positioning is about occupying a space in the prospective client’s mind that would justify a price premium because the client needs that expertise badly and can’t easily find it elsewhere. Economic theory addresses this phenomenon under the umbrella of the availability of substitutes and inelastic demand.
All this means that so many things that could be different aren’t, unless a firm’s positioning is appropriate. When it is, they make more money, have greater impact, are treated more respectfully as experts, have time to put their feet up and think, and build confidence in their approaches.”
— David C. Baker, The Business of Expertise
What is Category Design?
It can be a bummer to find out that the category you want is already taken by brands that came before you.
But there’s another way: Category Design.
“By establishing a new niche that is free of competition, your company has an excellent chance of dominating it,” pens CJ Haughey.
Still, there are drawbacks to this strategy, so it’s important to understand how category design works and if it’s right for your business.
“Category design is a strategy that involves positioning yourself in the new category you have created.
It is founded on how you want people to see and understand your new category. What do you want people to think about when they hear the name of your company or product?
Category design is simply that — the very idea that you want customers to associate with your company.”
— Christopher Lochhead, Category Design in Marketing
I know category design sounds a lot like positioning. It confused me when I first heard of it, too. But to put it simply:
Positioning is owning a word in your customers’ mind — in an existing category. Category design is carving out a new niche, and then naming and claiming it for your brand.*
- Bob Ross taught the wet-on-wet technique (existing category), but he set himself apart as the “trees and mountains guy.”
- McDonald’s is in the fast-food business (existing category), but it’s positioned as “the family-friendly, low-cost restaurant.” Raise your hand if your mama ever bought you a Happy Meal!
- Razors aren’t a 21st-century innovation (existing category), but the Dollar Shave Club stood out through its market positioning centered on convenience, relatability, and of course, affordability — delivered with humor.
- Uber essentially offers taxi service (existing category). The difference is you can book their cabs online, creating a new market of commuters and leading the rise of “rideshare” companies (new category).
- The first version of leggings (existing category) was born in 14th-century Scotland, originally worn by military men. But Lululemon gave it a new context and ignited the craze around “athleisure” products (new category).
- We used to watch movies on DVDs (existing category) until Netflix introduced its online “streaming” service (new category).
*Note that Category Design isn’t all about naming a new niche. Category Design requires on-point Product and Company Design to work.
If you’re in a longstanding category, figure out a way to position yourself well. Highlight what sets you apart — don’t be better. Be different, specific, and focused.
If there’s no more room for you to flourish in any existing category, create your own freaking category. Own that space!
In a saturated market where everyone promises the same results through me-too products sold at similar prices, you can’t afford to mimic the majority. Positioning and Category Design can help you stand out for a very long time. Just like Bob Ross did.
“Whenever you find yourself in the majority, it’s time to pause and reflect.”
— Mark Twain
Originally published on Prodigy’s blog. Prodigy is a digital marketing agency that helps purposeful e-commerce businesses grow their revenue using proven digital marketing strategies.
- 5 Positioning Strategies to Stand Out from Your Competitors
- 8 Category Levers
- Campbell’s Soup & How To Design A Category Breakthrough In The Roaring 2020s
- Baker, David. The Business Expertise. 2017
- “Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal, and Greed.” Netflix Official Site, 25 Aug. 2021, https://www.netflix.com/ph/title/81155081. Accessed 30 Sept. 2021.
- Editorial, Artsy, and Alexxa Gotthardt. “Bob Ross Owes His ‘Happy Little Trees’ to This Forgotten Painter.” Artsy, 26 June 2018, https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-bob-ross-owes-happy-trees-forgotten-painter.
- Enns, Blair. The Win without Pitching Manifesto. RockBench Publishing, 2010.
- Magretta, Joan. Why Business Models Matter, May 2002, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12024761/. Accessed 30 Sept. 2021.
- Mooney, Michael J. “Why Is Bob Ross Still so Popular?” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 31 July 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2020/07/why-bob-ross-still-so-popular/614431/.
- “Niche Marketing .” Everyday Finance: Economics, Personal Money Management, and Entrepreneurship. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Sep. 2021 https://www.encyclopedia.com.
- Rice, Mae. “Brand ‘Positioning’ Came out Nearly 40 Years Ago. Does It Hold up?” Built In, https://builtin.com/marketing/brand-positioning.
- Ries, Al, and Jack Trout. Positioning. McGraw-Hill, 1993.
- Ries, Al, and Jack Trout. The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing. Profile Books, 1994.
- Ries, Al. “Positioning Principles.” Ries, https://www.ries.com/positioning-principles/.