Create a product that becomes a fad, and you’re in for a sackload of money — for a while at least. For a few months, maybe a year if you’re lucky, you’ll wallow in media attention, see your name in every newspaper, field calls from Jon Stewart and perhaps even Oprah, and look goggle-eyed at your sales figures. And then it will all disappear. As quickly as the fad rocketed into the stratosphere, that’s the same speed at which it will crash into the ground. Suddenly, the phone will stop ringing, no one will want to talk to you, and if you’re making sales, it’s to asset-strippers hoping to make a few bucks off your desk. If you didn’t squirrel away your money during those boom times, you’ll be back where you started – minus one good idea. Create a product that turns into a trend though, and you’ll be set for life.
You won’t just have created an item that lots of people buy now. You’ll have started a fashion that lots of people will continue buying in the future. That means you’ll have to deal with competitors, copycats, pirates and me-too bandwagon-jumpers but because you’ll have been first, you’ll have the advantage. It’s much more demanding than selling a fad but it’s also much more stable and ultimately more rewarding. So what are the differences between fads and trends, and what can you do to turn your product from one to the other?
Fads Are a Load of Crocs
It used to be said that a fad starts in California, a trend in Connecticut. Crocs though, started in Canada then moved to Colorado. In 2007, the company made a profit of $168 million selling its range of plastic clogs. In 2008, that giant pile had become a $185 million loss. A third of the company’s workforce – some 2000 employees – have recently been given their marching orders.
Perhaps they should have seen it coming. Crocs had all the hallmarks of a fad: they were everywhere, suddenly; they divided opinion – either you loved them and wore them daily or you hated them and wondered why anyone would want to put rubber tubs on their feet; they were particularly popular with kids, a notoriously fickle market; and they tried to stay the same in the fashion world, an industry which has to bring out new product ranges every season.
Worse, the products themselves last almost forever so once you’ve bought one, there’s little reason to buy another one.
Crocs though did make money for a while, and they did try to move into a more stable revenue stream. (The company’s range of Croslite clothing didn’t do so well.) MySpace though is starting to show all the signs of faddiness without any of the big profits. The site, which already had 100 million accounts back in 2006 – a lifetime ago in Internet terms – has just laid off 30 percent of its workforce.
Like Crocs, MySpace is particularly popular with young audiences, but unlike Crocs, it’s tried to stay there. Instead of looking for ways to bring in older, more stable users – in the way that the slower-burning LinkedIn has done – it’s focused on bringing out emoticons, profile modules and most importantly, music. The result is that as the users have grown up, they’ve grown away, taking their advertising value with them. And they never bought anything either.
Compare MySpace though with YouTube, another social media site snapped up by a larger conglomerate but which appears to be on much more solid ground. While MySpace is shrinking, YouTube is the third most popular site on the Web, after Google and Yahoo!.
Faddy MySpace, Trendy YouTube
Part of that is down to need. No one needed rubber shoes, but those who bought them thought they looked cool… until they didn’t. MySpace grew at a time when there were few other options available for online social networking. But by staying the same and allowing Facebook to do social media so much better, no one who doesn’t own a guitar needs MySpace any longer.
YouTube was also born out of a need but it remains needed. The apocryphal story has founders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen attending a dinner party then wondering how to share a video of the evening online. That might not be true but the methods of sharing online video were very limited at the time. There was a demand for YouTube before it existed, even if those demanding it didn’t quite realize what they wanted. And since its creation, YouTube has not only managed to adjust – creating channels, introducing advertising, and allowing publishers to place videos on their websites – it’s also allowed users to change the site too.
That’s crucial, and it’s one very valuable way in which fads become trends. Customers do get bored after a while. Deliver the same thing in exactly the same way time after time, and eventually those customers will stop buying. They’ll buy the next new thing instead – especially if it does the same thing better. Allow your customers to get creative with your product though, and you might just find that it has more uses and a longer life than you could have possibly imagined.
YouTube might have been invented to allow people to share their home videos but it took off – and revolutionized the media world – when people start using it to upload copyrighted professional content. It got a second lease of life when users started creating their own versions of those clips, and added an extra base when companies saw its viral marketing value.
While fads tend to have one use – which means the product disappears when that use is no longer wanted – trends are flexible enough to adjust to the market’s changing desires. So the iPhone, which was unique when it came out but now competes against a host of other smartphones, remains a trend because of the directions its app developers have taken it. Twitter too might have risen with the speed of a fad, but its flexibility, its range of uses that have extended so far beyond its original vision as a kind of public messaging system, and its giant list of apps and APIs, have made it into a trend that’s going to stay (as long as Biz Stone and Even Williams can figure out how to monetize it.)
If you’re wondering whether your product is going to be a fad or a trend then, ask yourself what it does. What needs does it fulfill? And what needs could it fulfill if you gave your customers the freedom to put it to new uses?