Design and The Long Tail
To begin with, you've got to understand this. Sales opportunities exist in two parts, the body, and the tail:
Designing for the body is about designing for fashion, licensing, heavy TV/print promotion. It's designing for mass market, Target-Wal Mart-Big Box Store. It booms huge in sales, and then it fizzles out, eclipsed by the next boom. It's also finicky as hell.
Take the recent release of "The Incredibles" by Disney/Pixar. The movie was an incredible success (which designers love to attribute to its great modernist design) in theatres, grossing over 600 Million worldwide and winning all sorts of critical acclaim including two academy awards. Like ever Disney cartoon in the last 10 years, Incredibles had a ridiculous variety of merchandising support behind it, from talking plush to motorized disk shooters. But if you payed attention in Toys-R-Us or Target during the movie's run, you would have seen lots of toys on the shelves. They just didn't sell that well -- why was that?
That's a good question, and the reason behind our little discussion here. Designing for the body is designing for the least common denominator; the hypothetical "Average user". The problem is, most of the products like this that make it big, do so on accident. The incredibles toys didn't make it big because, quite frankly, they weren't that much fun. Here you've got a movie with much more adult concepts in it (the husband and wife arguing about who wears the pants, etc) compared to say, "Finding Nemo" (basically, a really cute fish. He's got one fin for crying out loud). But your toys are all the standard run of the mill "little kids movie" toys. We thing think that little kids went to see this movie because their parents went to see it. And this is where you can start designing for the tail.
The Long Tail, as Chris describes it, is an entirely different animal than the body of retail. The Tail has emerged with the internet economy as an infinite shopping mall of niches. Have you ever bought string, Tupperwear, ziplock bags, or a rake on the internet? No? How about an obscure French DVD, Anime comic book, Klingon dagger, rare African spice, out of print book? The latter group are Tail members.
The Tail is about creating pockets of absolutely devoted users in a sea of others who don't get it, rather than fitting everyone out with the same taupe cargo chinos.
As a quick example of a movie toy property that did well, and is destined to be a Tail favorite is a very special Incredible Hulk spinoff. While the movie received so-so reviews, the big winner was a giant pair of veiny green foam fists.
Called "Hulk Hands", these beauties defined their own new toy category, and were one of the hottest toys of the season. You can still find them in stores, almost two years after the film's release. A Google image search for "Hulk Hands" shows just how excited owners are. The reason for this item's success is it's solid design; even if it's not seen as hulk, a pair of giant growling fists is pretty awesome. And that "awesome" makes users passionate.
Before the Long Tail of specialty retail existed, you were only safe designing for the body of the market. You were only safe designing to hit as many people as you could. Now that there are so many more places to sell targeted innovative designs, you can afford to be a little more exciting. Like Uglydoll -- here's a concept which could only have been started because of long tail distribution online and in not-so-common sales locations, like CB2 in Chicago.
That's what the Long Tail is really about: Freedom. Freedom from re-using tried and tired designs re-branded with new blockbuster movies. Freedom from lowering your ideal to the lowest bidder's values. Freedom to design the things that you believe really matter. Because if they really matter to someone, the Tail connects them with it.
Whether you're writing movies, making shoes, building chairs, or designing toys remember this: In 10 years Eternal sunshine is going to live on and be bought like Casablanca. The re-make of "Flight of the Phoenix" is going to be sitting on the "2 for 5 bucks" DVD table in your local drugstore. Since you're free to do it, why not make some users passionate with your designs?
You can't please everybody, but with The Long Tail on your side, you don't have to.
Copyright 2004-2006 Dominic Muren and IDFuel Team