Are market structures reverting to a niche, fractal, existence?

Are market hierarchies about to crumble?

One of the great side effects of long bike rides is that it allows plenty of time to ponder. To take a step back and look at the totality of a subject or issue instead of the constant focus on the immediate. For some reason as I was wending my way through the back roads of Chattanooga, dodging dogs and rednecks, this thought stuck with me.

(Fair warning, this post contains sweeping generalizations and reduction of complex socio-economic principles to their simplest form.)

Back before economies of scale

Back in the land that time forgot everything was local, mostly because you really couldn’t get there from here. This bred a local need for almost every service. Economies of scale were difficult to leverage because it was difficult to expand beyond a locality. In many ways each locality and it’s associated services was duplicated almost exactly every few miles at the center of another concentration of population.

I see these as being the main patterns of a fractal market structure, (fractal is probably not the correct mathematical term for this pattern but my use of it is to describe the repeating nature of a pattern at varying resolutions of population). A specific industry at the regional level would be a copy of the industry at the state level which would be a copy of the industry at the county level which is a copy of the industry at a city level.

The market was essentially flat with no national brands or presence. As the geographic area of study expands and contracts the same pattern emerges.

After economies of scale

Improvements of communication, road, rail etc etc broke that pattern. It allowed strong companies to take over weak companies and exploit underserved markets. It allowed a brand and presence to be built which allowed certain brands to stand above the others in its industry and exploit a national presence. Thus the hierarchy.

Few giants, multiple regional players and hundreds of local wannabe’s.

After hierarchies were established there was always some competitor to measure yourself against, take over, outsell or sell out to. So,  for a few hundred years, that’s what we did. We planned and measured our businesses against the hierarchy of our industry.

Then the internet arrived, bringing with it a whole new set of economies of scale which are now beginning to cause market structures to revert back to a fractal existence.

Web 2.0 – The consumer takes over

For me, one of the main differences between web 1.0 and web 2.0 is that the protagonists have shifted from organizations wanting to sell to consumers wanting to consume. Instead of the organization forcing consumers into a behavior to serve the needs of the company, the company now has to serve the consumer in order to maintain its success.

Consumer driven markets tend towards multiple niches as each consumer exercises choice in order to satisfy needs, wants and interests.

Replace geography with demographic.

I think that as markets were niche due to geography before road and rail, they are now returning to niche due to demographic. I believe that companies will discover that mountain bikers in Oregon are separate and respond to different messages and value propositions to bikers in Washington or Montana.

“All politics are local” is one of the great rules of politics. I think we’re moving towards “All industries are local.” I see this as a marketing and customer service transition rather than a manufacturing and distribution one. In fact globalization of the manufacturing and distribution chains may well have hastened this reversion to niche demographics. When all products in an industry come from several large suppliers who supply all to everyone the only thing to differentiate between competitors is how they relate to their customers.

Those who relate best to the most number of market niches will succeed. However I do not see one company being the best at relating to all niches. There will be variation in how each company succeeds in this relationship. It is a model built on accepting variances of penetration in specific niches and looking at the totality of success across the market as a whole, the macro of all the markets niches.

It’s all breaking up!

I just discovered from a great Wired article that Tom Malone at MIT pondered this same thought in the late 80’s. His paper dealt more with the effect of more traditional economies of scale forcing the breakup of industries into smaller more agile business units acting as an affiliation in a market, but his conclusion was still the same. Markets and the industries that serve them are breaking up into niches. As I’ve said before, you’d better know who your customer is.

What do you think?

Have I found the wrong tree to bark up? Did I miss something in econ 101? Are you seeing it in your own market? Let me know.


My post “Know your market. Know your customer” on March 5th discussed how social media could be used to extend the reach of marketing or PR campaign. I thought I’d run through a possible scenario to extend the news cycle using social media.

Lets take as a start the Wired magazine article on the Coker Tire unicycle, from henceforth known as the “ouch”.

1. Article published in Wired

2. Coker writes about it in it’s blog, Facebook page and tweets using Twitter. They make sure to include a link to the article in both posts.

3. Coker adds a link to the article and, separately the YouTube video on it’s “news/media/bragging page”.

4. Coker comments on the online version of the article “yeah, it’s a behemoth, that’s why there’s a brake.”

5. Using Perspctv, technorati and other search engines Coker tracks any other blogs or Twitter posts commenting on the article. If any other posts pop up Coker comments on the posts. “Most people don’t get more than 5 ft, that guy did really well”.

6. Having identified the movers and shakers in the “giant unicycle” market Coker sends an email, with link, to each of them.

News cycle elongated.

This presumes that Coker have already identified how the “giant unicycle” market works, who are the main influencers and has taken the time to build relationship with them and the community.

It’s an extra few minutes a day to  track your online presence and prod it accordingly.

Good to see Coker Tire, a local company getting coverage in the that bible of technology, Wired. Wired had a short piece on the Coker Tire’s Giant Unicycle, the V2, and it’s potential to be the most dangerous thing in the office.

“The Coker V2 has two basic speeds: (1) that-watercooler-sure-is-coming-up-fast, and (2) I-think-I-just-broke-my-tailbone. With a massive 36-inch wheel and a hand brake, it’s like pedaling an oversize half-bike—the half without the handlebars. Speeds up to 29 mph have been reported. Luckily, Wired articles editor Mark Robinson has some experience with mono-wheeled vehicles. Lucky for us, that is—we got to watch him face-plant repeatedly while attempting to maneuver this beast through the office. Hey, Mark, you’re doing great! Try again!”

Coker V2 Unicycle

Coker V2 Unicycle

Two thoughts sprung to mind after reading the piece. Well done Coker Tire, why do you have a unicycle? For those who don’t know, Coker Tire makes tires for vehicles you can’t buy tires for. It owns 6 buildings on the south side of Chattanooga and are the largest supplier of antique and classic tires in the world with exports to over 32 countries.

I have since discovered that the V2 unicycle is only the latest in a line of bicycles offered by the company. A few years ago they manufacturerd and sold a huge cruiser, called the mega-cruiser based on the same 36″ wheel that, er, supports the unicycle and a penny-farthing based on the same wheel and tire combination.

Coker Tire, cool, slightly odd and based in Chattanooga. All things I like.

Video of Unicycle