Were you a Diet Crystal Pepsi fan? Maybe you developed a taste for Frito Lay Lemonade. How about watermelon-flavored Oreos?
If you liked one of those products, chances are you liked all three. Researchers at MIT wondered who exactly buys products that eventually get jerked from the shelves. They discovered it's the same group of consumers.
The researchers call these consumers "harbingers of failure" and suggest they provide a new window into consumer behavior.
"These harbingers of failure have the unusual property that they keep on buying products that are taken from the shelves," said MIT marketing professor Catherine Tucker, co-author of a paper detailing the study's results.
Talent for sniffing out turkeys
It's amazing, says Tucker – these star-crossed consumers can sniff out flop-worthy products of all kinds.
"This is a cross-category effect," she said. "If you're the kind of person who bought something that really didn't resonate with the market, say, coffee-flavored Coca-Cola, then that also means you're more likely to buy a type of toothpaste or laundry detergent that fails to resonate with the market."
For manufacturers and marketers, the implications are clear. If the harbingers of failure are rushing out to purchase your products, it's not a good sign. In a way, it's like high school – you only want the cool kids buying your product.
"It's not just how many people are buying them, it's how many of the right people are buying them and how many of the wrong people aren't buying them," said Duncan Simester, an MIT marketing professor and another co-author of the study. "The common wisdom is that people liking your product is a good thing. But what we've done in this research is identify a group of people who you really want to have hate your product. And that changes the paradigm of market research."
JC Penney tried it
There have been rare examples of a company trying to get rid of what it thought were the “wrong” kinds customers. Think back to 2012 when JC Penney purposefully alienated its middle American customer base as it tried to transition to a younger, hipper crowd – the cool kids. The results were disastrous and the retailer ended up going back to its former business model.
The MIT professors say their numbers are persuasive. When they studied convenience store sales and were able to identify harbingers of failure, they say that they found when the percentage of total sales of a product accounted for by these consumers increases from 25% to 50%, the probability of success for that product decreases by 31%.
And it's really bad news if they buy a product at least three times. After that, the probability of success for that product drops 56%.
But it would be a mistake to label these harbingers of failure as “losers.” Simester says they are simply more adventurous consumers – people willing to take risks.
And we should thank them. They try the watermelon-flavored Oreos so we don't have to.