From time to time, the marketing world is taken aback by huge, quick, unpredictable and seemingly inexplicable successes. These marketing "hits" are products or services, entertainment locales or vacation spots, shopping malls or specialty stores that enjoy puzzlingly immediate popularity.

There are unknowns who become hot celebrities; events, festivals or concerts that capture the masses; real estate development projects that evoke huge demand; or styles that become trendy. There are also new brands that are immediately adopted by the target population: for example, Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code, Apple's iPod, blogs, the Hamptons in Long Island, Toyota's Scion brand, the Crest electric toothbrush.

There are cases in which the reasons for a product's success are obvious. For example, the success of Viagra—a product that has solved a serious problem for millions of men worldwide—is hardly surprising.

But sometimes the success of a specific product, place or person over the competition remains unclear. We have all observed the phenomenon of a packed and trendy café surrounded by apparently equally attractive but relatively empty coffee bars.

Research about marketing hits is not new. Certain categories have accumulated much knowledge—enabling the planning and launching of hits with a practical probability of success.

In the leisure and entertainment segment, companies such as Disney, Warner, HBO and others have demonstrated such consistent capabilities in theater, television, music, toys, electronic games and more. Many have tried to crack the formula of marketing hits successes, and some have succeeded.

Short, Sweet Success

In the last few years, more and more sectors have become as high-paced and changeable as the fashion industry. The importance of hits for the success of companies has risen in sectors such as automobiles, food, grooming, hotels, construction, entertainment electronics, software... and the list goes on. It even includes unexpected categories such as financial services.

In the latter half of the 1990s, I identified a radical change in consumer behavior and a dramatic rise in a new motivation called the Fear of Missing Out, or FoMO. In 2001, I developed a standardized questionnaire that measured FoMO and discovered it motivates about 70% of consumers in developed countries at different levels. Of the 70%, half possess this fear at a high level.

In extremely concise terms, FoMO turns consumers into serial seekers and adopters of the new (while inevitably forsaking the not so new). One consequence, among many, is that FoMO nibbles at customers' loyalty to well-established brands.

If this is true, we now need new tools to deal with a new consumer reality that is here to stay. So I developed a comprehensive technology of rules and tools for the development, launching and management of the profitable, "short-term brand" (STB), which are planned short-term successes.

During this development process, I conducted an extensive, in-depth analysis of over 150 marketing hits in various and diverse categories. In parallel, I studied the accumulated experience in sectors that have learned how to methodically develop and generate such hits.

The Marketing Hits Formula and its implementation method allow for marketing innovation that will be accepted with immediate enthusiasm by target consumers and will spread virally. This formula has two major advantages: first, it is applicable to almost all categories; second, it does not necessitate enormous marketing and advertising budgets (the most common method of attempting to instigate success within a short time frame).

Success Has Its Rules

The formula postulates that each marketing hit is composed of the following four elements:

  1. Marketing hits are usually not large innovative leaps. The new product or service should be based, as much as 80%, on a format that has been successful numerous times in the same category. The format assures familiarity, promises consumer satisfaction and minimizes adaptation efforts on the part of the consumer.

  2. The product or service should be innovative by approximately 20%, which provides the new experience, the uniqueness, the additional benefit or any other reason to switch from the current product, or to at least try the new one. At the very least, the innovative part will offer the consumer a feeling of novelty, freshness or "up-to-datedness." This novelty should uphold the next two rules.

  3. The product's novelty should address one of the "unsatisfiable" or "regenerating" needs (see below).

  4. The product should include an element of "cool," "wow" and/or a "twist" that creates a viral motive (or, in other words, will supply buyers with a good reason to tell other potential buyers about the product). Such a viral element motivates spreading the buzz, because the spreader has a social benefit to gain by doing so: attention from others, interest, appreciation and an image of being up-to-date or a trendsetter.

"Cool" means right, fashionable and utterly current, perhaps even a bit edgy; "wow" means arousing awe and excitement through an amazing design or by an outstanding and an unexpected level of performance; and a "twist" means something unusual in a surprising, intriguing and often amusing manner.

Hits are planned and managed short-lived successes (the duration of "short" varies among categories) that are replaced by new hits. It is of utmost importance to realize that hits satisfy two types of human needs not catered to by long-term, established brands:

  1. Unsatisfiable needs. These are wishes that cannot be realized (at least, not to a full extent), but human beings will relentlessly attempt to fulfill them while deceiving themselves that it is possible to do so. These attempts, fueled by fantasies, enable consumers to remain optimistic and hopeful. Among the unsatisfiable are the yearning for eternal youth, irresistible sex appeal, grandness, omnipotence, domination, an ever-exciting life, and adventure (without investing the effort, taking the risk or paying the price). It is understandable that brands supporting such fantasies are bound to disappoint eventually and must be replaced by new solutions.

  2. Regenerating needs. Such needs require ceaselessly new fulfillment. Some of them are regenerating psychological needs, such as the need for attention from the environment, the need to renew oneself, remain up-to-date, discover and be tempted or seduced. There are also regenerating social needs, including the need to signal involvement, belonging and openness. Finally, there are experiential regenerating needs, such needs that please the senses and the emotions. As is well known, our system becomes accustomed to stimuli, and in order to maintain the freshness of experience we are in constant need of new scents, tastes, tones and textures to allow for arousal of our senses.

Success Has Its Tools

Applying the "Marketing Hits Formula" requires certain tools. A major one is the Fore-Search consumer research method, which I will describe briefly later on.

First, this method enables the precise identification of the components of the format that has proven successful in the past. Then, it enables the pre-detection of elements that will be perceived by target consumers as having elements of cool, wow or a twist.

The hit-development process includes the following four stages:

  1. The first stage consists of choosing the appropriate timing for launching the hit. There are three major types that constitute the so-called right time:

    • The first is a ripe replacement cycle, i.e. a widespread feeling among the target group that the current hit brand has lost its newness and intensity of appeal.

    • The second is seasonality, which is relevant for certain categories, from children's toys to beachwear.

    • The third is "situational timing," which results from a change in circumstances, market and competition dynamics, or consumer trends.

  2. The second stage involves scanning for hit opportunities, mapping them, then methodically evaluating them. To this end, my partners and I use a system called O-Scan (Opportunity Scan), which conducts a methodical and comprehensive search in six directions considered to be the most fruitful—based on our extensive experience:

    • Consumer research focused on identifying potential future consumer desires (totally unimagined by them at present). We use a combination of several methods, including trend analysis, cool hunting, "Consumption Leaders' Research" (consumption leaders must be distinguished from "innovators" and "early adopters"), scenarios and simulations, and mainly our Fore Search qualitative research method, which allows diagnosis and reverse analysis of current wants in order to gain insight into potential ones. Using these methods, we follow the process of hits succession; we look for evolving tastes and preferences as well as for emerging new social groups and market segments.

    • Competition analysis for identifying blind spots and competitor weaknesses (even momentary)—and pinpointing ready-to-be-broken implicit rules of the game—that create opportunities.

    • Search for underexploited "treasures" within the company—for example, infrastructure, technological capabilities, expertise, social/business network connections and so on—that can serve as the basis for future opportunity.

    • Examination of the brand and brand architecture in order to scrutinize the options to launch the hit as a "standalone brand," a "series brand," a "foreground brand" with an established long-term "background brand," or as a "satellite" to a long-term "star" brand.

    • A worldwide search for relevant successful models (even in other categories) that can be adapted and applied or at least can serve as inspiration.

    • Inventive thinking sessions, methodically applied for generating possibilities that create opportunities.

  3. Developing a concept surrounding the new hit based on the Marketing Hits Formula described earlier. The concept must pass three complementing tests: the profitable business model test, the competitive advantage test and the attractive brand-ability test.

  4. Developing a launching plan based on the use of all the tools included in the Short-Term Brands armory.

Here's an example of the formula in practice.

A few months back, we used the formula to assist an Eastern European client in developing a new female contraceptive product. This in-uterus device releases progesterone at a low dose and is effective throughout the full menstrual cycle.

During our work together, the client's marketing team came to realize that they might be manufacturing a medical product—but their customer is actually purchasing a product that directly influences her sexual pleasure. The new product may offer some decrease in side-effects compared with previous products; however, we had made a decision to concentrate on developing the product as a marketing hit.

The viral component chosen here was a multicolor, glow-in-the-dark feature. In addition, the device's package would include (in addition to the necessary components required according to health regulations) Kama Sutra style cards depicting pleasurable sexual positions.

Stay tuned. The product launch is expected in the near future, and if I were to base my hunch on the extensive research findings from a comprehensive market study—we have a sure hit on our hands!

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Dan Herman, PhD, CEO of Competitive Advantages, is a strategy consultant, keynote lecturer, workshop/seminar leader, and author of Outsmart the MBA Clones: The Alternative Guide to Competitive Strategy, Marketing, and Branding (