Selling: The downside of overnight success

What do Megan Fox, Crocs and Krispy Kreme have in common? They're all victims of their own success.

It was not even two years ago that Megan Fox, the 23-year-old bombshell actress, exploded onto the scene with the summer blockbuster Transformers. But a few feebly received films later, plus a couple of Maxim covers and months of being wallpapered all over the Internet, and the public’s appetite is sated. So much so that this summer the men’s online communities and AOL’s Asylum waged a one-day boycott of all mentions of the comely actress, dubbing Aug. 4 “A Day Without Megan Fox.” It was a clear example of early-onset brand fatigue.

We’ve seen this sort of spectacular rise and fall in the marketplace before — with Krispy Kreme, Razor scooters, and Uggs, to name a few. But these days, exalted products seem to be falling harder and faster than ever before. If new media have accelerated the pace of trend adoption, they also seem to be speeding up the cycle of extintion. Consider Crocs. In 2007, at the company’s peak, Crocs pulled in almost $850 million in sales. But ultimately, the candy-coloured clogs, which had their detractors from Day 1, proved to be too conspicuous for their own good. Recently, Project Runway critic Tim Gunn scolded Michelle Obama for wearing her pair on holiday — and the public seems to agree. The stock has fallen from a high of US$74 to just US$7.85, and some experts have placed the company on death watch.

You could argue that Crocs and Megan Fox were fads, never intended for more than a brief moment in the sun. But a recent study from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania suggests that, in cases like these, the problem is not necessarily with the product itself but with the speed in which it caught on.

The study’s researchers came to this conclusion after looking at trends in baby names in France and the U.S. and discovering that “future parents were more hesitant to adopt baby names that had recently experienced sharper increases in adoption.” In other words, once something reaches a certain threshold ofpopularity, people no longer want to identify with it. And anything that reaches this threshold quickly has the added disadvantage of little built-up goodwill.

“This has important implications for businesses,” says Wharton professor Jonah Berger, who co-authored the study with Gaël Le Mens of Barcelona’s Universitat Pompeu Fabra. “They think they want a thing to catch on quickly — we’ll have greater word-of-mouth, greater product awareness,” he says. But the findings suggest these products will have a shorter lifespan and be less successful overall.

The study’s results pose an interesting problem for companies: how do you launch a product and hit it big, just not too big or too quickly? One place to start, suggests Terry O’Reilly, a marketing consultant and the host of CBC Radio’s The Age of Persuasion, is to think less about the life of the product and more about the life of the brand. “My mantra to clients is to think long term,” says O’Reilly. “A brand is a long story, not a bunch of short bursts. You want to tell the same story with consistency, but in fresh ways. Clients are always looking between here andChristmas, or between Christmas and the March break, and they need to look beyond that.”

The brand story — the messages it evokes for the consumer — should stress a product’s quality and functionality so that its lifespan will extend long after any novelty wears off, says Claire Tsai of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “We need to give consumers a reason to stay with the product,” Tsai says. “People are not going to abandon something like President’s Choice chocolate chip cookies just because they want to disassociate themselves from someone else who eats them — the quality is not affected.”

With consumers counting their dollars now more than ever, they’re less willing to risk purchasing products they might soon be hiding in their basement. “Nobody wants to think, I’ll be this turkey out on a limb, one of the few people who bought a Hummer or has the biggest Beanie Baby collection in the world,” says O’Reilly. If a brand is going to last, it must be able reassure consumers that today’s shoulder pads won’t morph into yesteryear’s, well, shoulder pads.