Sometimes, it’s a bit unclear why things become popular. What makes Silly Bandz so special? Why is Arya becoming a popular baby name?
Jonah Berger, an associate professor at the Wharton School and the author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, has made a career of studying popularity. And he told us three of the ways that products rise to the top.
They offer social currency
According to Berger, the reasons why ideas and products become successful is far less about the technology that a product uses, and much more about the psychology of the people buying the product.
When you purchase that pair of Nikes, you’re not just getting sneakers. You’re becoming associated with that brand – and they’re becoming associated with you. Berger thinks that forming (and advertising) that connection is key:
“There are a lot of great products out there, but if we don’t talk about them, if we don’t share them with our friends and colleagues, they won’t catch on.”
He says that people want to fit in – but they also want to be a little unique. So products that let people be seen as cool and different in a socially acceptable way, are primed to catch on.
They're innovative, but not too innovative
It seems logical that the most forward-thinking, groundbreaking products and ideas would be the ones to catch on. But it’s not that simple. Sure, we want things that are different, but not too different. Berger says it’s a Goldilocks situation:
“If something’s too innovative, we say ‘well that’s too different from what I’m doing now, I don’t really want it. But if something’s too similar, we don’t think it’s different enough.”
Take Apple's line of “Newton" products, rolled out in the 1990s. They presented the public with cutting-edge technology before they were ready for it, or understood how to incorporate it into their lives (and the Newton devices admittedly had some issues).
Berger believes that products need to meet a need that people have right now.
They don't catch on too fast
Gangnam style. Furbies. Pet rocks.
Intense popularity doesn’t always guarantee lasting success. In fact, it can be detrimental. And this isn’t just true of trickets or pop songs.
“A few years ago,” Berger says, "we did a big analysis of 100 years of baby names. Looking at the popularity of every baby name over time in the United States and France over 120 years. And what we found was that names that catch on more quickly, tend to die out more quickly. If it caught on very quickly, people said ‘oh, wow, that hasn’t been around for very long, I don’t want to give it to my kid, because it might not be around for the long haul.’”
In a sense, the idea that "something’s a flash-in-the-pan becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."