If You Loved Watermelon Oreos, You May Be a 'Harbinger of Failure'

It turns out that certain people repeatedly buy products that end up flopping.

Source: Oreo

Do you still think Pepsi made a huge mistake by taking Diet Crystal Pepsi off the market? Did you love McDonald's Arch Deluxe, Frito-Lay Lemonade, Colgate Kitchen Entrees, and Watermelon Oreos? If so, you're probably a "Harbinger of Failure"—a consumer whose taste is so unusual that companies can use your preferences to figure out what not to sell.

"Some customers can actually be a strong signal of future failure," says a paper published in the latest issue of the Journal of Marketing Research

Catherine Tucker, a co-author of the paper, said harbingers of failure don't stand out in terms of age, gender, income, or place of residence. Something about their tastes, though, just doesn't line up with everyone else's.

"When I present this paper, there’s always one person in the audience who realizes that this is them. They list all the products that they’ve bought, and at that point everyone stares at them in the audience and says, 'Really? We thought you were normal'," said Tucker, a marketing professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management.

Added Tucker: "It's always the person you'd least expect."

The research began when a large convenience store chain asked Tucker and some other scholars to figure out which products would succeed and which would fail, so it could optimize its use of shelf space. The data came from more than 10 million transactions made using frequent-shopper cards, enabling the researchers to tell who was buying what. "They were hoping to build an early warning system," she said. 

It's not just that certain people try out new products that turn out to be unsuccessful. It's that they keep going back for more of them. The same people are more likely to buy niche products that aren't new, the researchers found. The other authors are Eric Anderson of Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, Song Lin of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Business School, and Duncan Simester of MIT Sloan School.

They don't try to explain what causes "flop affinity," but it turns out Tucker may herself be a Harbinger of Failure. She once bought a self-cleaning cat litter box that didn't clean itself. And she admits that she used to drink Crystal Pepsi. "This paper may be slightly autobiographical," she is quoted as saying in MIT's press release.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE