Are harbinger customers responsible for bad products?

Too many articles on research findings are written by journalists who don’t have the business expertise to ask relevant questions. “The Hustle” recently published an article on Harbinger customers from research that is almost eight years old. It makes for a good read, but the narrative is false.

According to their newsletter, “in recent years, research has suggested that a certain fraction of consumers are exceptionally skilled at picking out products that are destined to fail, or get discontinued. They’re called harbingers of failure or harbinger customers.

In 2015, a team of researchers at Northwestern and MIT analyzed six years’ worth of transaction data from 130k customers at a large national retail chain. They found that ~25% of customers consistently buy products that flop within three years.

According to the research, the more Harbinger customers buy a product, the more likely it is to fail. There are numerous problems with this research that marketers should be asking.

Early adopters like to try new products, but trial doesn’t necessarily lead to a repeated purchase. The outcome could disappoint, the retailer could discontinue, or be hard to find.

The article goes on to say, “Harbinger customers are a distant relative of 2 other types of consumers:

  1. Preference minorities: Customers with niche or unusual tastes.
  2. Lead users: Customers who have specific needs and are dissatisfied with mass-market products.

While lead users tend to identify breakthrough products before they hit, harbinger customers seem to have a unique talent for picking epic failures.

They’re sort of like anti-influencers.


Since they mention some massive failures like Crystal Pepsi and Watermelon Oreo’s, I assume that these brands did their market research since big brands are unlikely to launch anything without a LOT of research. Would they have launched if the product appealed to preference minorities or lead users?

As an avid cyclist, I love to try new products that appear everywhere as cycling takes off. I’ve found a lot that I like to disappear from the market or never get the crowdfunding they need to launch.

There will always be people who love to try new products because they have money and like to try new things. Too often, those “new things” suck, so they disappear. To suggest that a particular segment of consumers buy products because they are Harbinger customers’ is bullshit.

About richmeyer

Rich is a passionate marketer who is able to quickly understand what turns a prospect into a customer. He challenges the status quo and always asks "what can we do better"? He knows how to take analytics and turn them into opportunities and he is a great communicator.

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