May 11, 2009 -- In pop culture, as in nature, what goes up must inevitably come down.
But what determines how long something stays at the top of the charts or the tips of our tongues? What separates a short-lived fad from a long-term trend?
Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, has a theory. Berger and colleague Gael Le Mens studied baby names in the United States and France over a 100-year period to understand how cultural practices and tastes catch on and then die out.
In a study published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, they revealed their findings: The faster names gained popularity, the faster they lost popularity. They also found that the names that caught on most quickly ended up being the least successful overall.
"People often think that catching on quickly is a good thing and will lead to greater success because it increases word-of-mouth and raises awareness. Our results actually show the exact opposite," Berger said. "Things that catch on too quickly are actually adopted by fewer people over their lifespan."
Consistent Adoption Over Quick Adoption
Berger said they chose baby names because the amount of available data lent itself to statistical analysis. But all cultural items, like music albums, fashion styles and toys, have some rate of adoption, which means that their findings could be applied to other domains as well, he said.
"People care about popularity and the meaning of consumption across a whole host of domains, so there is no reason to expect that adoption speed should not show a similar pattern," he said.
And, marketers take note, Berger's findings could have implications for you.
"People who want to ensure persistence and success of their products, cultural movements or styles should manage the 'adoption' process," he said. "By shepherding a consistent flow of adopters, rather than a huge spike, they will be more likely to ensure success."
Professional trend-spotters said Berger's research is interesting but simplifies how cultural taste works in the real world.
Fads Like 'Shooting Stars'
"We make a distinction between fads and trends," said Ira Matathia, director of consulting and strategy for the marketing consulting firm Faith Popcorn's BrainReserve. "What defines the difference is velocity. Fads are really like shooting stars.
"Trends have an identifiable life cycle. They can be born, go through adolescence, most commonly mutate or morph in some way so that while the essence remains the same, the way it appears in the culture begins to change," he continued.
But trends reflect deep-rooted human desires and needs, and can last for decades, he said. Cocooning, or the need to find safety and security at home when the world seems in flux, is a classic trend, Matathia said. When a product can speak to one of these human needs, it has the potential to last. For example, the minivan, he said, addressed the cocooning trend and had a successful run because of it.
Fads are more likely to last for a matter of weeks or months. Although it's too early to tell, Twitter is an example of a product that "has all of the earmarks of a fad," said Matathia. The site boasts more than 14 million users and, according to Web analytics site Compete, grew 76.8 percent from February to March.
But Twitter has shown difficulty retaining users. Web traffic firm Nielsen recently reported that 60 percent of Twitter users don't return the following month.
Some Things Meant to Be Fads
Craig Bamsey, CEO of predictive marketing firm Infinia Foresight, said that while he's seen quick adoption rates translate into quick abandonment rates, he also said the quality of a product and its ability to touch deeply can't be underestimated.
"You don't want to say a lot and then nothing and almost force a fad," he said. "If it's 100 percent flash and no substance, you're going to fade quickly."
But, he said, it depends on your goal. Some things are meant to be a fad, like fashion styles and the children's toys that appear each holiday season. Lance Armstrong's Livestrong awareness-raising bracelet also enjoyed short-lived popularity, but it still left a lasting impression on the American public.
But if a product or personality implies a certain depth and texture, and can change and adapt with a culture, it could demonstrate staying power.
For example, he pointed out, Michael Jackson's "Thriller" topped the charts for nine months and is one of the best-selling albums of all-time. But that didn't stop his career from lasting another two decades.
"Some things lend themselves to a fast start. Others have a long tail," Bamsey said.
Seven Unforgettable Fads
With the help of these trend-spotters, we put together a short list of fads you're likely to remember that got a fast-start. Here they are.
Crocs and Other Plastic Shoes
For a while, the brightly colored plastic shoes were the footwear to be seen in from Los Angeles to New York. But trend spotters suspect the popularity of the plastic shoe has peaked.
On Thursday, Crocs Inc. announced a 32 percent drop in revenue, according to Reuters.
"Our intention in 2009 is to preserve the strength of the Crocs brand while endeavoring to strike a balance between lowering our fixed cost base and responsibly reducing our inventory," said Crocs Chief Executive Officer John Duerden.
Infinia Foresight's Bamsey believes the company is evolving, but he also said it didn't act fast enough.
"They rode the wave too long. Their surfboard hit the beach," he said, adding that the product was "pretty static.." "Do they stand for something? Do they have a certain competency?" he asked.
Piers Fawkes, founder of trends and innovation company PSFK said, "Rapid popularity led to trends outcry but many ripoff versions. Lots of people got rich on the plastic shoe fad even though I think Crocs as a company has not died."
The Livestrong Bracelet
Lance Armstrong's iconic yellow band was intended to raise awareness and funding for cancer research. But the $1 plastic bracelet spawned a whole class of wristbands for a variety of charities and political causes.
Launched in May 2004, the bracelets found their way on to the arms of celebrities like Angelina Jolie, Robin Williams and Sen. John Kerry. But today they're hard to spot.
"The Livestrong bracelet was meant to be a fad," said Bamsey. "It was great marketing but not meant to last very long."
The tiny stuffed toys from Ty Inc. really hit their stride in the late 1990s, becoming international trading and collectors' items.
Popular among both children and adults, the line started with basic frogs, dolphins and bears. Over time, it grew to include seasonal animals and celebrity lookalikes, like the Princess Diana bear introduced in 1997 after the royal's death.
Bamsey said the craze-inducing creatures fit the mold of a fad but said the shorter life cycle is part of its offering.
"Creating and selling 'fads' can be a wise business choice if the category/product lends itself to that," he said. "It's all about generating interest and intent to buy. And some products are unlikely to be sustainable over time."
Since Ty Inc. is a low-profile, private company, sales figures are difficult to come by. But while the company still sells the plush toys, it no longer grabs headlines and inspires buying frenzies the way they used to. However, now that a Beanie Baby fashioned after the President Obama's dog Bo is in the works, maybe they're poised for a comeback.
A favorite at weddings and bar mitzvahs once upon a time, Los del Rio's Macarena is No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 All-Time Top Songs list
The popular song -- and unforgettable accompanying line dance -- peaked during the summer of 1996. But after the song's success, the band fell out of the mainstream, winning the top spot on VH1's top one-hit wonders list in 2002.
In 2004, the social networking Web site was a media industry darling, making it on to Time magazine's list of the 50 Coolest Web sites that year. But those days are long gone.
It's still popular in some parts of the world, analysts said, but its popularity in the United States has plummeted as other sites like Facebook and Twitter have taken its place.
"Friendster, the original social network, exploded then imploded. Facebook worked out the errors made during that wave and took it all to another level altogether," said PSFK's Fawkes.
The site was launched in 2003, giving users a place to connect with existing friends, friends of friends, their friends and more. By June 2005, the site claimed more than 16 million worldwide subscribers.
According to its Web site, Friendster now has about 100 million members worldwide, but it isn't even listed among the top 10 social networking sites. According to Compete, Friendster was the 18th most-visited social networking site in January 2009, with about 7 million visits. Facebook, ranked No. 1, had about 1.2 billion visits in the same month.
"The quintessential fad," said Ira Matathia of Faith Popcorn's BrainReserve, about the pacifier-like ring pops.
Manufactured by the Topps Company, the wearable sweets were introduced in 1977, but they really became popularized in the '80s. The edible jewelry is tough to find these days, though it still makes appearances on the fingers of stars like Lindsay Lohan, Fergie and others.
Garbage Pail Kids
Another Topps creation, released in 1985, Garbage Pail Kids were once the trading card of choice for kids and adolescents.
Meant to parody the Cabbage Patch Kids dolls, each card featured a character that had suffered some kind of abnormality. The cards' success led to the production of a live-action movie and animated television series that briefly aired in Europe.
The fervor has died down, but the cards are still around. Its Web site gives visitors the option to build and raiser their own kids.