The Tipping Point of "Cool"

Research shows that popular products can quickly lose their cache if they become favored by the masses.

December 01, 2007

| by Marguerite Rigoglioso

Why do fads fade? In some cases, people get bored with things, or replace the old with the new and improved. But with items like clothing, cars, and music CDs, it’s not clear that one model is necessarily better than another. And such products fall in and out of style with such swiftness that boredom hardly seems to be the issue. So what’s going on here?

In a recent paper, Stanford researchers found that consumers may abandon products if they start being favored by the masses, or by members of certain social groups. In other words, as soon as chic goes mainstream, or geeks start sporting the clothes of jocks, items are dropped like passé hot potatoes by the kings and queens of cool.

“Products we buy can act as signals of identity, and provide others with information about the type of person the owner is, including their group memberships and other preferences,” says coauthor Jonah Berger, PHD ‘07 and assistant professor of marketing at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. “When similar people buy the same thing, that gives an item a certain social meaning.” But when too many, or the wrong kind of people start buying it — the Martha-Stewart-in-Kmart phenomenon — that object loses its meaning, and former consumers turn away, seeking new identity markers.

In their research, Berger and Chip Heath, Stanford Business School professor of organizational behavior, found that in product domains or categories that are used to communicate identity, consumers were more likely to try to separate themselves from the majority or members of specific social groups. The relevant products were in trendy domains such as music or hairstyles, as opposed to the more utilitarian categories such as backpacks or stereos.

In these volatile areas known as identity domains, participants avoided options once they learned such items were preferred by majorities. In one study, for example, consumers were asked for their favorites in areas such as cars, clothing brands, dish soaps, and bicycle lights. A couple of weeks later, they were given information suggesting that the items they had preferred were now also getting a strong nod from a high percentage of other students. When retested for their preferences, they changed their choices, but only in product categories that were identity relevant — such as cars, clothing, and music — and not in categories that weren’t — such as dish soap and bicycle lights. Cool had suddenly become uncool, and when too many others liked an item it was no longer a good marker of identity.

In another study, a cool item became passé when it was perceived that an uncool group also favored it. Undergraduates were asked how much they liked a new digital music player. If they viewed the music player as simply functional, they rated it just as high when told that other social groups also used it. But when they were asked to write about ways that the products could communicate a sense of identity — thereby putting themselves in the mindset that the item was identity-relevant — it was a different story. If they found out that a group dissimilar to them — in this case, business executives — liked the product, the students being studied rated it more negatively.

The paper suggests that companies that deal in identity-relevant goods must constantly stay ahead of the cool-passé pendulum swing. “Companies need to manage meaning,” says Berger. “Brands need to attend to who is adopting their products, because these adopters can change what purchasing or using the product signals, and can lead other consumers to abandon it. If you want your brand to retain caché, you might want to think about protecting or segmenting meaning. Brands can constrain the type of consumers who can easily find it, or can use sub-brands or limited edition options that allow the company to sell to the mainstream while also maintaining the desired signal for the taste leaders.”

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