The Customers You Wish You Didn’t Have

We’ve all heard stories of products that came out with a bang but flopped. Crystal Pepsi is perhaps the most famous, and if you were around for its release in 1992, you’re familiar with how big of a marketing disaster it was. For those who weren’t, that year, Pepsi introduced a clear version of its cola product with extraordinary fanfare, investing $40 million in the products and its marketing (including a Super Bowl commercial as a kickoff), but sales were tepid and Pepsi discontinued it within two years. It was a mess.

Crystal Pepsi, though, was hardly unique. As previously recounted in these pages, Colgate — the toothpaste company — once released a series of Colgate-branded TV dinners, which sounds like an awful idea and, in fact, was one. It failed to find a foothold with consumers and evaporated from the frozen food section before the decade was out. But someone bought Crystal Pepsi while it was available, right? And there were a handful of people who bought the Colgate meals — yeah? Yep, there were.

And it turns out, if you sell consumer products — or want to run for political office — you should probably try not to make these consumers happy. Because if they’re buying what you’re selling, chances are, no one else is.

You wouldn’t think that the people who liked Crystal Pepsi have anything in common with those who dined on Colgate’s meals — and you wouldn’t be alone in making that assumption. In 2015, a team of marketing researchers discovered this commonality accidentally. The researchers were looking at the buying habits of customers who frequented an unnamed chain of convenience stores, likely to help the store better understand its customers. And as one researcher, Professor Catherine Tucker of MIT, told the New York Times, they made a discovery that “was really an accident” — there were a handful of customers “who were really good at picking out failures,” so good that, in the words of the Times, “a newly introduced product was less likely to survive if it attracted these buyers. (And if they bought it repeatedly, its chances of survival were even worse.) Professor Tucker called these people harbingers of failure because, statistically speaking, their fondness for a product heralded its demise.”

The surprises kept coming. In a follow-up paper published in 2019, researchers noticed that these people who purchased products that bomb tended to live in the same neighborhoods as one another, and as a result, there are “harbinger ZIP codes” — per the paper’s abstract, “if households in these ZIP codes adopt a new product, this is a signal that the new product will fail.” And if you think that’s simply because people tend to influence the purchasing habits of their neighbors, that’s true, but there’s more to the story. according to the Times, the researchers’ “analysis showed that when households in harbinger ZIP codes moved, they tended to move to other harbinger ZIP codes, while households in nonharbinger ZIP codes did the opposite.” When it comes to consumer products, some people just seem to have a knack for liking ones that are going to fail — and for finding other people who similarly like otherwise unpopular products.

And that’s not all, because it turns out that when these harbingers of product doom donate to political candidates, well, the political candidates have a shelf life roughly equal to a bottle of clear cola. Per the Times, the researchers “compared the contributions to congressional campaigns made by harbinger ZIP codes — identified, again, through their purchasing decisions — with those made by neighboring ZIP codes over the course of five federal election cycles. They found that harbinger ZIP codes prefer to donate, in both absolute dollars and total number of donations, to candidates who end up losing their races.”

Unfortunately, if you’re running for office or marketing a new consumer product, the researchers didn’t provide a list of ZIP codes to watch out for. A user on reddit claims to have reverse-engineered some of the list, which you can read here, but then again, maybe you shouldn’t take advice from strangers on the Internet. For all you know, that person lives in a harbinger ZIP code.

Bonus fact: Pepsi licensed the song “Right Now” by Van Halen for their Crystal Pepsi marketing launch, much to the chagrin of Van Halen fans (and Crystal Pepsi skeptics) who saw this decision as their favorite band selling out. But, according to Eddie Van Halen, the decision was a no-brainer, as he explained to Guitar World: “The only reason we gave Pepsi the music was because they were going to use the song anyway. They would have just recut it with studio musicians, like they do for some TV movies because they can’t use the original. If they use the original recording, they’ve got to pay, but if they don’t, all they do is give credit to the artist and then pay the studio cats. Pepsi told us they were going to do that, so we said, ‘Hey wait a minute, we might as well get the money.’ I ain’t that proud, you know. I’m not going to say, ‘No, go ahead, rip us off. And keep the money, too!’

From the Archives: Vodka and Cola: The “Don’t piss off Joseph Stalin” version of Crystal Pepsi.