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The “Harbinger Customers” Who Buy Unpopular Products & Back Losing Politicians

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 10, 2019

Colgate Foods

This paper, about the curious phenomenon of “harbinger customers” and “harbinger zip codes”, is really interesting. These harbinger customers tend to buy unpopular products like Crystal Pepsi or Colgate Kitchen Entrees and support losing political candidates.

First, the findings document the existence of “harbinger zip codes.” If households in these zip codes adopt a new product, this is a signal that the new product will fail. Second, a series of comparisons reveal that households in harbinger zip codes make other decisions that differ from other households. The first comparison identifies harbinger zip codes using purchases from one retailer and then evaluates purchases at a different retailer. Households in harbinger zip codes purchase products from the second retailer that other households are less likely to purchase. The analysis next compares donations to congressional election candidates; households in harbinger zip codes donate to different candidates than households in neighboring zip codes, and they donate to candidates who are less likely to win. House prices in harbinger zip codes also increase at slower rates than in neighboring zip codes.

It’s fascinating that these people’s preferences persist across all sorts of categories — it’s like they’re generally out of sync with the rest of society.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the harbinger customer effect is that the signal extends across CPG categories. Customers who purchase new oral care products that flop also tend to purchase new haircare products that flop. Anderson et al. (2015) interpret their findings as evidence that customers who have unusual preferences in one product category also tend to have unusual preferences in other categories. In other words, the customers who liked Diet Crystal Pepsi also tended to like Colgate Kitchen Entrees (which also flopped).

(via bb)