The Long-term Downside of Overnight Success

Marketers may dream of coming up with a product that skyrockets in popularity as soon as it is introduced to the public. New Wharton research, however, indicates that products which catch on too quickly may end up being less successful overall.

To explore patterns in “cultural adoption and abandonment,” Wharton marketing professor Jonah Berger, and Gael Le Mens, an economics professor at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, tracked the popularity of first names over 100 years in France and the United States. The names that soar into popularity fastest, they discovered, also tend to fall out of favor more quickly. “We often see products, ideas and behaviors catch on and spread like wildfire. New high-tech gadgets or YouTube videos go from unknown to amazingly popular,” says Berger. “But we know less about why once-popular things become unpopular.”

In a paper titled, “How Adoption Speed Affects the Abandonment of Cultural Tastes,” the authors studied not only the popularity of names at given points in time, but also the speed at which they were adopted — and shunned — by parents. For example, the names Charlene, Tricia and Kristi each peaked in popularity — chosen for about 0.20% of all female births in the United States at various points over the past 100 years — but all eventually settled to mere blips. However, Charlene which built slowly from 1910 to its peak around 1950, dropped less precipitously and accounted for more births overall. Kristi rose more quickly than Charlene to its height around 1970, but declined at a faster rate. Tricia, which burst into popularity in 1970, had already sunk below Charlene and Kristi by 1980.

The authors looked at first names to examine patterns of popularity because name choices are not driven by technology or other commercial effects. Names are also a good proxy for products and services that convey symbolic meaning about identity, according to Berger. While the popularity of a refrigerator brand may depend on technological change or the quality of the item, other products, such as cars or clothing, often carry symbolic meaning about the purchaser’s identity.

“Most managers want their products to catch on faster, but our analysis suggests that this might not always be the best strategy,” says Berger. “If something catches on too quickly, it might not only have a shorter lifespan, but may also end up being less successful overall. Faster adoption may hurt product success.”

Fads tend to be viewed negatively, the authors point out. “And if people think that sharply increasing [popularity] will be short lived, they may avoid such items to avoid doing something that may later be seen as a flash in the pan.”

100 Years of Names

Berger and Le Mens began their research with a look at the speed with which thousands of names were adopted, and abandoned, in France over the last 100 years. A name was considered to be abandoned when it dropped below 10% of its past maximum. Their analysis showed that names which experience sharper increases in popularity tend to die faster, even after controlling for factors such as novelty. In addition, if a name reached the same level of popularity 10% faster, its subsequent rate of decline was 12.5% larger. A comparable analysis of U.S. names found the same results.

To gain a better understanding into why these patterns arise, Berger and Le Mens structured another experiment in which 661 expectant U.S. parents completed an online survey about baby names. The respondents were shown 30 different names and asked how likely they would be to choose each name for their child.

Even though parents participating in the survey did not see any data about the popularity of the names they were shown, they were less interested in adopting names that had recently experienced sharper increases in popularity. Further, this effect was driven by concerns about symbolic meaning. Parents were also asked how likely it would be for each of the same names to become a short-lived fad, and whether these concerns led them to be less likely to adopt names that were catching on quickly. “By going around the world, or watching TV or talking to other parents, [people] get some idea of how popular a name is and how quickly that name became popular,” says Berger. People “intuit that information. It’s not perfect, but people have some idea.”

The research into the adoption and abandonment of names challenges some assumptions about the diffusion of a message and its saturation in the population, which is an important concept in marketing. As a message spreads — or diffuses — through a population, it reaches more potential adopters. However, diffusion models typically assume a set target population size. Using the population of people naming a baby each year to explore adoption and abandonment, the researchers were working with a group that continually renews itself. Other factors, beyond diffusion and saturation, must be involved, the authors argue. “Adoption velocity is one such factor.”

The paper goes on to note that conventional wisdom would hold that if a message diffused through a population quickly, more potential adopters would be reached, improving the prospects for widespread adoption. The French and U.S. names data show the opposite. “Names with faster adoption actually ended up being adopted by fewer people,” the paper notes. “The effect of adoption velocity on the cumulative number of births with a given name … shows that adoption velocity has a negative effect on the cumulative number of adopters.”

The paper points to examples in the music industry of new artists who bolt to the top of sales charts, but realize lower overall sales than those whose popularity grows more slowly. “This seemingly counterintuitive finding has important implications. One is that faster adoption is not only linked to faster abandonment, but may also hurt overall success,” the authors write.

Being the Same, yet Different

According to Berger, parents’ attitudes toward naming their children reflect a fundamental tension between an individual’s desire to conform and fit in with others, while at the same time preserving a distinctive identity. “We want to be both similar and different. We don’t want to be the only person in a red polka-dot shirt and crazy hair — nobody dresses like that. But at the same time, we don’t want to wear exactly the same thing as everyone else in the office.” Similarly, no parent wants to walk into the first grade classroom and find 16 kids with the same first name as his or her own child, he adds.

The authors suggest that their research fits into the growing literature about “cultural dynamics.” By “more closely examining the psychological processes behind individual choice and cultural transmission, deeper insight can be gained into the relationship between individual (micro) behavior and collective (macro) outcomes such as cultural success,” they write.

The paper raises the question of how the findings about the adoption of first names may fit into a broader understanding of cultural declines in popularity where external factors, such as technological characteristics or marketing, play into the dynamics of adoption and abandonment. For example, the authors note that advertising might lead to fast adoption of a product, but the popularity of the product or service advertised might decline when that support dies off or switches to a substitute. “Importantly, though, our results suggest that independently of its cause, a quick rise in popularity may have an accelerating effect on abandonment,” the authors write. “As such, we anticipate that there will be an inherent tendency for items that have been adopted quickly to decline faster, even in cases where advertising persists.”

In the end, would Berger suggest that marketers actually attempt to push less strenuously to gain popularity for a product? He says the answer depends on what is being sold. For largely functional items that do not communicate much cultural identity, such as a disk drive, there is little risk of too much popularity coming too soon. “But you might want to think about [this issue] in a domain that people use to communicate to others,” he says. “I’m not suggesting that a manager doesn’t want the product to catch on at all or to take too long to become popular. But too quickly might be damaging. You don’t want it to catch on too quickly or people might say, ‘This is here today, gone tomorrow.’”

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