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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- If the 17th annual Brandworks University conference held in Madison, Wisc., June 5-6 had a clear takeaway for its 325-plus participants, it was this: Your tails cannot be too long.
Chris Anderson: The long tail is all-important -- but you still need the head.
This year's conference, which focused on niche marketing, kicked off, appropriately, with a speech from Wired editor Chris Anderson, author of "The Long Tail: Why The Future of Business is Selling Less of More," about how technology is fueling consumer demands for more and more individualized brands.
Mr. Anderson's well-trumpeted theory holds that a marketer ought to have a few large brands (a head) and then loads of smaller ones (a long tail). And one inquiring mind in the audience wanted to know if the head was really necessary.
"You can't just have tail," Mr. Anderson answered, before pausing awkwardly. "Sorry."
A few hours later, David Rubin -- brand-development director for Unilever's sold-exclusively-with-sex deodorant, Axe -- took issue with that claim: "Chris Anderson is actually wrong: You can just focus on the tail," he said.
'A brand for every half customer'
Long-tail advocates often spout off about technological advances in customization and advances in customer service making one-person brands possible. But for University of Maryland Professor Roland Rust, that's not specific enough. He thinks marketers now need a brand for every half customer. "You can have a brand for Jekyll and a brand for Hyde," he argued.
Of course, that sort of hyper-specificity could make it hard to keep a customer in such a narrowly defined brand for long, but Mr. Rust argued that brand directors should care less about keeping customers in their brand and more about handing off those customers to sibling brands when appropriate. That, he argued, makes a lucrative lifetime customer relationship with the parent marketer more likely.
'Hiding the ads from mom'
As companies manage more and more brands, they run the risk of an outlaw brand reflecting badly on an otherwise wholesome portfolio.
Ann Mamer-Lloyd, VP-marketing for ConAgra's occasionally outlandish Slim Jim brand, said part of her brand's media strategy involves "hiding the ads from mom" and instead advertising only where the brand's 17-year-old, sports-and-video-game-playing target resides. Ms. Mamer-Lloyd said mothers accustomed to less edgy ConAgra brands -- which include Pam cooking spray, Swiss Miss hot chocolate and Hunt's ketchup -- occasionally write in to complain about her ads.
'Connecting with each other'
Despite the high-profile struggles of marketer-produced internet television networks such as Anheuser-Busch's Bud.TV, marketer-produced content online is absolutely essential to any niche-marketing strategy, according to Adam Berry, VP-marketing at Brightcove. He told attendees that, while the best sites are built around professional content, they have to go beyond that to incorporate social media in order to be successful. "The internet is not about you connecting with your customers; it's about your customers connecting with each other," said Mr. Berry. "Do you want to participate in that, or do you want the conversation to run on its own?"
As brands become more and more niched, attracting talent willing to define themselves just as narrowly poses a new challenge. Canada's wildly successful Shouldice Specialty Hospital has thrived by limiting its practice entirely to hernia treatments. The advantages of focusing on this procedure include lower costs and higher patient satisfaction. But it's not easy, Director of Business Development Daryl Urquhart said, persuading type-A-personality physicians to focus so narrowly. "Getting surgeons to give up on world-saving and to come to us to be a crotch mechanic is not easy."