Wagging The Long Tail

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(Corporate leaps of faith rock my world.) photo by toimaginetoo

Note to my faithful readers: Usually, the stuff I write for the Corante Marketing Hub doesn't really work for this blog, but today is a bit of an exception. I hope you won't mind my doubling-down.

Here you go:

Today, Grant McCracken points us to Coca Cola's apparent new shift to the long tail:

"Given its pending portfolio of coffee soda, gourmet teas and Godiva drinks, Coca-Cola is expected to expend more time and energy on low-volume, high-margin categories than ever. (...)

Rather than look at beverages on a category by category basis, Mary Minnick, head of marketing, innovation and strategic growth, has said Coke is looking at how beverages fit into consumers lives. She has described the need states as, "Enjoyment today," "feel good today," and "be well tomorrow."

- Kenneth Hein, from Strategy: Coke Seeks Relief (Again) By Scratching The Niche. (Adweek. March 06, 2006.)

And that's fine and good, but... whatever happened to... just... great taste?

When I order a latte from my favorite coffee shop or buy a bottle of Orangina or and IBC cream soda, it isn't because of "enjoyment today," "feel good today," and "be well tomorrow." It isn't because of clever packaging or image or transference or projection. It's because I'm in the mood for a particular flavor. This is about mood and palates and lifestyles, not "feeling good" and "being well".

Oh, I know... I don't have TCCC's millions of dollars of research at my fingertips... but you know what? I'm wired just like everyone else, and I know why I buy drinks. I know why my friends and colleagues buy drinks. They like the taste. They look for context. Catch-phrases have nothing to do with it.

You can make any study and any set of numbers and statistics and results say anything you want. Especially when you have a whole lot of time and money invested in new products whose development needs to be justified to a board of directors.

Could this be a case of the tail wagging the dog? (TCCC's need for some kind of ROI from its product development programs?) Is TCCC's real strategy just a numbers' game? Is it to throw as many products at us and see if anything sticks? Where ten years ago, none of these new drinks might have ever seen the light of day, now they've found a chance at life in "the long tail." Could this just be a front? I guess the question is worth asking, even though I'll assume - for the sake of this discussion - that this isn't the case.

TCCC, here's a tip: Drop the gimmicks. Focus on taste. Whether you love wines, beers bubble teas or kefirs, it always comes down to flavor. Most people who choose to drink Coca Cola do so because they prefer it over the taste of Pepsi. It isn't because the cans are red or because Coca Cola makes them feel happy or look cool. (The glass bottles might be the exception.) The taste, before anything else, is at the core of the Coca Cola experience.

Whether you're The Coca Cola Company or a startup with a great idea for a product, before you spend millions overthinking your strategy, just focus on making a really great product. One that people will love to discover and use and talk about. If you love it, chances are that lots of people out there will love it too. If you really want to grab hold of the long tail, you have to start with you. The game isn't about pleasing everyone - or the majority of "the market" (which has been TCCC's strategy for decades). It's about creating a product for a very specific core of rabid fans/customers.

The trick though, is this: You can't do it by trying to fill a need based on market research (American women between the ages of 32 and 46 with a median annual income of $68-97K responded favorably to XYZ... yadayadaya...). It's what TCCC has been doing for years, without much success. It's what everybody's been doing too. It's what you do if you want to be an "also in". Your only recourse once you've greenlighted a new product launch is to outspend your competitors in everything from advertising to POP displays to licensing rights, and then try to hang on as long as you can. It's ridiculous.

The right way to do this is to do the work. The real work: Instead of quantifying a culture, penetrate it. The supertool here isn't statistics, it's anthropology. Here's another tip: the moment you start quantifying tastes, you've lost your focus and drifted back to the lukewarm center, just like everyone else. This is the easiest mistake to make, and also the most common.

The way you develop a chocolate-flavored drink isn't by talking to 10,000 people on the street. It's by talking to 10,000 chocoholics. These might even be people who love chocolate but hate chocolate drinks. (How cool would it be to have 10,000 people with such specific tastes tell you why they love chocolate but hate chocolate drinks? Tell me you wouldn't crack that code with that level of feedback.)

The point is: Do your research at the extreme edge of the bell curve.

The way you develop a new endurance drink is by talking to rabid cyclists and triathletes and marathoners. The way you develop a new game console is by talking to avid gamers (not casual gamers). The way you develop a new Pop Tart flavor is by talking to people for whom Pop Tarts is a major food group. This isn't about talking to 0.3% of American shoppers who are representative of the 60% of shoppers who place Pop Tarts in their Top 10 likeliest breakfast foods. It's about talking to the fraction of a percent of people who live and breathe the stuff that is at the core of your new product's identity and raison d'etre and will buy your new flavor of Pop Tarts every other week.

Not just talking to them, but understanding what makes them tick and embracing them completely.

The long tail, after all, isn't about markets. It's about cultures. Subcultures, even. The more specific, the better. Think skateboarders. Think triathletes. Think online gamers. Think photography hobbyists. You either become a central part of those cultures, or you go home packing.

(Incidentally, the Pop Tart team absolutely gets it.)

If TCCC wants to grab hold of the long tail and make its new strategy work, it needs to un-Coke itself. It needs to shed the TCCC formula where these offshoot brands are concerned. It needs to create truly independent subsidiaries staffed by people who live inside the cultures they are trying to cater to, and completely outside the reach of the Coca Cola culture.

Think of it as United Artists trying to produce "independent" films with $100,000 budgets. The only way they could do it well would be to create a smaller studio managed and staffed by people who live, eat and breathe the indy culture... and let them do their thing without corporate interference, bureaucracy and big business politics. Anything short of that would result in total and utter failure.

Will TCCC be smart (and courageous) enough to pull it off? Eventually, yes. I think so.

Will it be this time around? I guess we're about to find out.

Have a great Tuesday, everyone.

Transparency heads-up: I am the Marketing Hub Editor for Corante.

Note: In case you're wondering, the artists and photographers whose images I have been featuring lately are all - like me - part of the Buzznet community (think Flikr, but with a whole lot more personality).

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