The Long Tail

I talked with the owner of my favourite pub in Cambridge last night. The pub shall remain nameless for reasons that will become apparent.

He refuses to sell Carling, Stella, Bulmers, etc. on tap. Instead he sells fine whiskeys and rums, real ale (offering 2 guest ales which change regularly), and decent ciders. His landlord and financial backing (brewery) insisted he sold the big brands, in order to have the pumps installed in his pub when they started. He agreed to the deal as he couldn’t afford to buy pumps himself, ordered a single barrel of Carling, didn’t connect it up to the pump, left it for a few months until the beer was out of date, and sent it back saying there was no market for it in his pub.

To this day he only sells decent, CAMRA-happy real ales.

In one sense, he was shooting himself in the foot. There is always a market for the lowest common denominator. To prove this, he sold Carling for one night for a trial, and apparently it sold far better than the other drinks put together.

But he then went on to say that he didn’t want that kind of person in his pub. Whilst you might think that’s a bit “Basil Fawlty”, it is now three years later and his pub is extremely popular. Instead of a television, they have live folk music and jazz nights, they sell the work of local painters and graphic artists, and the pub is very well-loved by locals. The locals in this neighbourhood are quite unique in that they consist of people like bow-makers, musicians, artists, and academics.

Although he still doesn’t make as much money as he would if he sold the popular brands, he also doesn’t have to deal with rude, drunken males (Stella), packs of abrasive middle-aged women (Barcadi), and the like. Instead, most of the people who turn up at 6pm are distinguished men and women who come with newspaper and conversation. Whatsmore they campaign on his behalf.

I’m not saying there is anything wrong with selling certain types of product to certain types of people. This pub is not at the very highest-end of the market in wine, for example. Nor does it shun the popular brands of bar snacks, as another example. It’s just that I was impressed by this pub owner’s vision. The fact that he saw this vision through means the local neighbourhood really benefits; localism has increased, people talk to each other more – which even has knock-on effects to crime prevention, and it makes accessible a sense of community that otherwise may not have been apparent. And community amongst the British middle classes – particularly in city life, is something that is so rare.

Of course it’s a well-known phenomenon that great businesses, however big or small, create their own market. However what impresses me is that in order to find your own market, part of this process is denying the existence of the market you don’t wish to serve. In a world that, given the chance, would rather drink Stella Artois, it takes a certain vision to carry-on with what you want instead of going with the economic flow.

It’s like the Radio 4 effect vs. the Radio 1 effect. Radio 4 caters for 5% of the radio-listening population (I made that figure up). But of those people, 100% would complain if the channel went off-air for a few minutes. Conversely, Radio 1 caters for 80% of the radio-listening population, but a far smaller proportion (2%?) would notice let alone complain if it were to go off-air.

I suppose in marketing terms, this effect is called the short tail vs. the long tail. I know where I’d rather be, in my life and in my work.

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