How Popularity Ends

Popular things can begin to grate on you. Sometimes you wonder when people are going to stop sharing or talking about X item. The good news for the terminally bored is that popularity can and often does end.

The bad news is popular brands and personalities may not like that. Of course, something else will become popular and we can all suffer through the trivial presence of and conversation about new popular thing Y. A select few popular brands will be smart enough to evolve and maintain their popularity.

I was thinking of this in relation to a recent article Richard Becker wrote about social networks losing some of their shine with corporate marketers and PR pros. This popular trend may be losing its shine because of the way social media-based corporate promotion is “supposed to work” versus the very nature of marketing. Rich had a good counterpoint about social networks over-conditioning people to act in certain ways. And he is correct, the like-fest is not delivering the same marketing experience as promised.

The conversation sparked some additional thoughts on what ends popularity, in general. Here are some causes:

1) Reality Sets In

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When a popular trend or fad hits, it often brings a promise. Bell bottom jeans thin your profile, that is until everyone starts wearing them and there is enough of a sample out there to immediately recognize the thin and the thick.

Or say you have a baby boy, and you decide to name him something that ends with an “n.” You like the sound, and want him to have a unique name. That is until everyone does it and the novelty wears off as soon as your kid gets to school and half the boys in the room are named Colin, Maven, Chillin’ and Whateverin’.

By the way, please don’t name your daughter Soleil. Thank you!

In all seriousness, I think this is the case with social networking-based marketing. Rich made this point pretty well in his post: The medium’s true nature may not lend itself to marketing, or the way communicators are being conditioned to market by both the networks themselves as well as industry thought leaders.

The hit or miss nature of many of these tactics creates a need for the analytical revolution of now. Big and small, company’s are tired of the latest gimmick (You need blogs. No, try Facebook and Twitter pages! Wait, it’s content! Now, it’s Facebook ads. Hold on, it’s Instagram for Business!). Experimentation remains the rule, but community activation and interest is an empirical must.

2) Boredom

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Let’s be honest, over-exposure makes popular things boring! I love chocolate mousse. But if I ate chocolate mousse every day I’d get sick of it pretty quickly. Particularly, if it was my own or my wife’s chocolate mousse.

This phenomena is what my friends at Power Supply like to call single source provider. When the same person cooks your meals over and over again, your palate gets bored. Your poor spouse’s cooking is probably better than you think, you are suffering from eating the same thing cooked by the same person over and over again.

Ever listen to top 40 radio? I do now thanks to Soleil (remember, you cannot name your daughter Soleil). I’ll admit it, I kind of like the recent Taylor Swift songs that came out, until I heard them a few hundred times. Now I am bored. I am also severely bored with songs that have sampled deep male bass voices rhythmically chanting “Hey.” Sorry, Maroon5 you were late to this game (love the 5 by the way).

Sooner or later something new comes along, a new innovation or just a different jingle. How does a brand survive? It continues to innovate. You may be tired of iPhones, but you have to admit Apple does keep evolving the product. Every time it release a new iPhone, people get excited. Brands like Apple, BMW, Coke and others possess longevity grounded in commitments to evolve, whether in product or in marketing.

This may be Faceboook’s primary problem right now. No matter how much Zuck and co innovate, they cannot improve the Like, nor can they make it more attractive.

3) Stop Evolving

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The other aspect of ending popularity deals with the behavior of the popular themselves. Perhaps they take their popularity for granted. They believe in their own myth, and then their behavior betrays their ego. There is no greater example of this than Lance Armstrong.

I would also argue that Blackberry lost its market position in spite of clear warning signs and competition. It believed its market form and IOS were superior, and did not respond to the challenges in time.

Or in some cases a personality or brand chooses different priorities, and simply stops taking the actions that maintain popularity. Have you ever seen a popular personality simply retire or retreat to focus on other things such as family matters? David Bowie literally disappeared for a decade to focus on raising his children.

In that vein, some brands choose not to extend themselves into other markets and form factors. They don’t innovate, and just remain true to their basic promise. However, the novelty of the item wears out.

I think Lincoln Logs are a classic example. You won’t see a Lincoln Logs movie anytime soon, nor will you see a Star Wars edition. Nor will you see a Madagascar edition with African animals. It doesn’t mean that Lincoln Logs aren’t a good toy. They are still awesome, but they lack the popularity of a brand like Lego which has expanded its toys and its marketing to meet the culture of now.

Whatever the cause, brands and people stop the actions that created their popularity. So they lose it.

What do you think about popularity and how it ends?

14 Replies to “How Popularity Ends”

  1. I think you’ve nailed it on so many levels, and what’s interesting about that is your analysis mostly points out that it’s pretty hard to find a way out of the trap, too.

    Coke right now is trying to evolve by making versions of their drinks with sugar instead of other sweeteners. That’s the novelty. Look, “regular” sugar. But it’s still Coke, and if you get bored of the same cooking, as you pointed out, who cares?

    Restaurants are a great example of this. On Route 1 up my way, there are all kinds of restaurants that thrive with lines out the door and around the building for a few months and then no one seems to go there. They close down. A new restaurant comes in and pow. Huge lines. For a few months. Then, only a few persist, usually those with pockets deep enough to weather the storm.

    But what’s strange/interesting is when you apply this to people and their projects. When Brian Clark stopped being the primary voice on Copyblogger, I stopped reading (with zero offense meant to the great writers there now). When I tried to launch Owner magazine, everyone complained that they wanted my take, not the other 24 authors (which was the whole point of trying to do a magazine and not a blog).

    Madonna comes to mind. She held on for decades, but now?

    I think the one cook theory is probably right, and I think it’s even harder for someone to evolve as a solo product than maybe it is for some of these other brands, who can diversify in other ways.

    So who knows? Maybe it’s all about making hay while the making’s good, and then retiring to fish. Not sure. I didn’t make the hay, though, so I’ll still slug it out and try to get folks to like my cooking.

    1. The crowd is merciless in its demands for the popular, and its inevitable tossing of the old aside for their latest darling.

      I think the Owner Mag thing is interesting. It reminds me of Nike’s attempt to extend the Jumpman brand beyond Michael Jordan by signing Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul. Cool, but not Michael Jordan cool, which is what everyone wants with that brand.

      Madonna will certainly have her turn to see if she can withstand time’s inevitable pressure with Rebel Heart this March. I wonder if a Taylor Swift Madonna MTV Awards performance is in our future ;)

      Thank you for the thoughtful comment, Chris!

    2. This may sound oversimplified, but I think that we are not radical enough in our thinking about new and participatory media. Established corporations essentially put old wine in new bottles (and industry advocaes are content to provide those new bottles). Early leaders like Copyblogger (love but) are essentially in the new bottle business. And standard setters like Facebook create infrastructure that can be transcended.

      Geoff writes that “community activation and interest is an empirical must. ” What makes this happen, not tools, is what needs to be at the center of ou ur inquiry.

      I am part of a community that is insanely active and fuels a huge income for the leader. I am part of other communities that were once relevant to me that I have slipped away from. The difference seems to be the ability to select good community members, listen, a true desire to serve, frequent transmission of high impact information, and a commitment to grow and help community members grow, and clear and identifiable results from participating. A high standard few communities meet.

      Popularity is by nature fickle, but “the fundamental things apply as time goes by.” I feel the significance of social media is going to prove to be spreading people to people connections and an increase in demand that products be relevant and meaningful not just “popular.”

      What is the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade but a fabulous free offer that entices shoppers for Black Friday? No surprise that Macy’s is still thriving as a traditional (now omnichannel) retailer. We need to bring the social and community building perspective to all business, all channels, and recognize that business is not an island unto itself but a part of society and culture. When business nourishes society and culture, that is, people, they come back. One of the nourishing things Macy;s does is treat people of every race, immigration status, and income level as important. That hospitality serves a larger function than selling shoes – though it sets the foundation for selling shoes.

      That to me is the radical part of social media. It’s not just about building community around the users of your product. It’s making their lives better in whatever way you can. It’s going below the surface and being a human being on a journey with your customers. It’s dropping the corporate veil. In some ways it exemplifies a trend John Naisbit wrote about decades ago in Megatrends: the more high tech we get, the more high touch we get. We’re bringing an old fashioned way of doing business back. It’s not about the tights (er, tools).

      1. I like the focus on the commitment to excellence here. Those that remain have that undying focus.

        Speaking of Macy’s they still keep the traditional Wanamakers holiday light show in Philadelphia going. It is nostalgic and awesome, and demonstrative of an understanding about what matters to their customers in that region.

  2. Such a thought provoking post along with Rich Becker’s. The human psyche is so fickle constantly seeking immediate gratification, creating a sense of fear of missing out on the newest shiny thing and so often devoid of satisfaction with the present.

    As I read along I couldn’t help thinking about the term “midlife crisis” that invades the mind and consciousness with self doubt, fear and discontent instigating thoughts and desire for that new car, spouse or body yet rarely quenching as there will always be a newer, shinier model around the corner. As you reference Lincoln Logs, undoubtedly a solid product, I wonder if we would be better to trust and build more on our souls which are unfading rather than be continually manipulated by the unrelenting demands of crowd

    1. Modern advertising really was invented by Richard Bernays, Freud’s nephew, applying ideas about human motivation to industry in the aftermath of WWI, when business was afraid consumers wouldn’t spend. One of the things social media has unleashed is person-to-person cummunication that does not pass through that fear-based mindset. I believe we are in new territory here, where those constructs are revealed as constructs only, not the fundamental constituents of reality. Other psychologists’ influence seems more vital now (e.g., Jung). The concept of life as a journey (not a series of battles) has taken hold in popular culture and seems to be evolving. Maybe we are growing up!

    2. That is true, and yet I wonder how much harder and yet easier when the choice to focus on one’s self will be in this digital era. There is so much feedback on what we are, how we act, who we become, what we should like (peer and promoted). It’s almost like you have to turn it off, or become extremely prejudiced about the information you accept.

  3. Just pulling from the comments, there was “Chris Brogan, Podcast guy” who evolved to Chris Brogan, Owner advocate. Geoff Livingston also evolved to photographer and fiction author from marketer, writer and PR guy and nonprofit guy. Wow, lots of personal brand evolution. I’m learning something by writing this.

        1. I would agree with Howard on people as products. I’ve seen Chris, Geoff, and many other folks evolve their personal/professional brands over the years. I remember presenting at and attending PodCamps back in the day and Crayonville launching Virtual Thirst for Coca-Cola in Second Life. To me, it’s about continuing to stay relevant and doing good work. Over the years, in my career, I’m always seeking out thought leadership and advice in this ever shifting digital marketing space and feel comfortable seeking out insight from folks I’ve seen sticking in there throughout the years.

          This way, I avoid the putting old wine in new bottles, as Susan mentioned above.

  4. Reality, boredom, evolution.. competition, the winds of the market, and everything brands to do drive, shape those forces. One thing mentioned was cool, Michael Jordan variety. See also: a product placed Starbucks vs Dunkin Donuts, different brand communicates a different image. I’ve always been a jaded consumer, never really bought into celebrity culture or believed the endorsement or the multimillion dollar deal to market their name a whatever store. IDK.

    Is it just the ‘next big thing’ making us bored or complacent? Is it reality that some companies build that ‘timeless, always in style’ brand that’ll always be top of the heap? Once upon a time it was sort of Dooney & Bourke vs. Coach for mid-level luxury that women wanted to be seen wearing, owning a few. Walk into any Macy’s today – Michael Kors has lapped them! Cool has a tipping point; the minute something is IN, it becomes ‘so 5 minutes ago.’ Not sure what they did, but MK figured out how to win – and hold on – the popularity game. FWIW.

  5. First,-please: chocolate mousse I could eat everyday without a problem…made by anyone!
    I think fads are just that no matter what the medium is. I think as unpopular as this statment will be . the waning interest in whatever is testimony to the superficiality of the majority of people involved.
    When someone truely likes something, when it passes the phase of being the hot item, there will still be people who will stay with it. Those are the people who when involved with the item had an experience that really chimed some chord within. That is the real following,
    Those people are often discarded in our society as weird, or not in touch. Let’s go to bell bottoms. So they go out of style, but to Petunia she simply loves the way they feel on her, how they fall etc. Others stare at her…afterall don’t you know they fell out fashion 10 years ago?. Petunia’s love of bell bottoms come from different spot than the person who is trying to look skinny, as in your example who is already wearing something else by now.
    I think because of the superficiality of the majority , you cannot expect a sustained boom. The people who remain,-they are true clients or fans. I doubt that any object known through any medium can hold someone’s interest forever . The medium is not the issue. It is the nature of the people involved..

  6. Great post, Geoff!

    Having read, Virginia Postrel’s “The Power of Glamour,” I now
    tend to look at the emotional connection people make to brands in terms of
    glamour. More than mere popularity, glamour has the power to tap our longings, even if only barely formed. It gives them a point of focus, and can make that product, person, setting, or even idea attractive.

    Basically, glamour offers the promise to transform our lives in positive
    and powerful ways. Part of this, I believe, comes from the sense of exclusivity
    that comes from being an insider. The glamour of a brand can tap into a desire
    for fellowship and belonging.

    Yet, as Postrel makes clear, glamour is an illusion that only
    lasts as long as reality is suspended. For example, international travel held
    allure for a very long time, but mainly because most people did not travel
    internationally – so, reality had not set in.

    So, clearly you’ve nailed the reasons brands lose allure!!

    On the whole, I agree it’s important for brands to evolve. Yet,
    evolution can’t be at the features level. It needs to be at the customer
    experience level. Virgin Air, for example, didn’t fundamentally change
    international travel, but did offer a fresh and attractive experience that
    recreated that insider feeling.

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