Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Adventures In The Could-Be-Longer Tail

by Tom Bozzo

The idea of the "long tail" is that net-enabled relaxation of the constraints of physical retailing, if not the actual embodiment of products, frees us from the tyranny of the merely popular (the "short tail") and opens all sorts of niche and fringe markets.

As net-related concepts with elements of pure hype go, the long tail has the advantage of a substantial element of truth. This contrasts with the more usual total nonsense that's peddled in the name of the digital revolution, for instance this George Gilder quote via Thomas Frank's One Market Under God:
"Rather than pushing decisions up through the hierarchy, the power of microelectronics pulls them remorselessly down to the individual."
(For an exercise, assume the statement is true. Then explain executive compensation levels.)

If you are reading this, or for that matter most of my blogpals, you're somewhere in the blogiverse's long tail. I've downloaded a couple of albums so far from the long tail of the iTunes Music Store's collection, sparing me the need to digitize vinyls in order to get eighties indiepop rarities on my iPod while permitting me to stay somewhere in view of "fair use." (*) Midlist authors seem to see material sales gains from free parallel distribution of their work as e-texts. And so on.

This brings us to the sad story of John's and — cough — my — cough — favorite toy. Lego has been struggling to adapt to a world in which its primary audience, pre-teen children, is less interested in traditional building toys than video games. At the same time, Lego is under price and shelf space pressure from cheaper knock-off brands with no compunctions against occupying niches that Lego has traditionally avoided, like military and other undeniably violent themes. (**)

Much of their strategy has involved what you could call in this paradigm mining the "short tail" for ideas — notably through the endless Bionicle line, where coming up with the wacky names for the scary-looking critters would seem to provide a challenge on the order of Ikea product naming, and licenses of entertainment properties including (more or less successfully) Star Wars and Harry Potter (***) and (less so) Jurassic Park and North American professional sports leagues with labor relations issues. The line of Thomas the Frickin' Tank Engine Duplo trains is too new to gauge.

The down side is that in a battle between the power of established brands and the license fees' exacerbation of the price differential between the knockoff brands, price seems to be prevailing at the nameless discount retailers who account for ever more of the toy market. And Lego has been losing Kroner hand-over-fist, leading to the usual retrenchments of the business and sourcing of production outside the E.U.

Their efforts to wean themselves from lesser licenses has also been a mixed bag. In the department of what-they-think-of-us, a decision (since rescinded) to market only in North America one of the latest themes, "Dino Attack" — with sets consisting of action-figure mutant lizards and militaristic vehicles, no protectable relation to a certain film trilogy — while the rest of the world got a cool line of Viking-themed castle sets led to amusing reactions on the discussion boards, such as:
Oh we could have a field day with this one.

Guns ‘n’ Pickups for the gun crazed middle America versus historical playsets for sensitive Scandinavians?

Dinosaurs co-existing with humans for the creationist New World versus mythical beasts for the barely Christianised barbarians of the Old World?

Forward looking, modern technology for the freewheeling United States, versus backward looking swords and wooden boats for the hidebound EU?

Discuss - 1000 words.
After that, it was a pleasant surprise to see that at BrickFest 2005, a D.C.-area convention for grown-up Lego fans (AFOLs, or Adult Fans of Lego, in the lingo), Lego announced (****) an actual long-tail killer application: build virtual models with Lego CAD software, upload the files to their Web site, and they'll supply you with the bricks in the real ABS.
At the end of this month, we’ll be launching the new LEGO Factory site – a true revolution in our product platform. Users will be able to use LDD to build and upload their models, which can then be purchased by the creator or other consumers.

The key here is the concept of a “product platform”. Being able to allow consumers, or LEGO designers alike the ability to create models in a quick, relatively free-form fashion is a powerful capability that will create amazing possibilities.

The best thing about this platform is that it no longer locks us into having to choose between a few major, mass market product lines each year. We literally now have the ability, with your help, to deliver a wide array of themed content through LEGO Factory.
When I was 12, I'd have thought this was the coolest frickin' idea in the world. Now that I'm 37, have money, and can indulge my children by way of a rationalization... well, it's still the coolest frickin' idea in the world. Happy building.


(*) In both cases, search costs remain a major hurdle.

(**) This didn't remotely hinder my brother and me from building ray guns and horribly beweaponed space cruisers with them when we were kids. There are also a multitude of sell-outs of those principles littering Lego catalogs going back to my childhood. Nevertheless, I'm in complete agreement with Tonya that realistic toy rifles which require brightly colored plastic bits to ward off nervous police are off-limits.

(***) The down side is that this has tied a good chunk of their business to the film release cycles, as well as to the less beloved Star Wars prequel trilogy. They also had relatively little to sell into the Potter-mania attending the publication of Half-Blood Prince.

(****) This blog page is unusually authoritative, as the author is "Global Community Relations Specialist" for the Lego Group. Now there's a job where fun may actually be a significant part of the remuneration.

There is a ton of money in mass-customization like with custom M&Ms, credit cards, etc. And soon you'll be able to get your cells on a chip for custom drug trials.
This is the greatest thing since opposable thumbs. Does that mean that there will soon be a semi-official Thomas the Tank Engine with ray guns? And dinosaurs? And vikings?
Scott: two unknowns are the extent of the "brick palette" and what sort of control they'll try to exercise over submissions. With respect to the former, I'd guess that specialized elements subject to non-Lego IP licenses like the Thomas train faces won't be available through the program. So if you want to make Thomas the T-Rex, you'll probably have to make a provision in the model and supply Thomas out of a conventional Duplo set.
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