The bandwagon effect refers to people’s tendencies to support a cause, movement, product, person, or behavior because it has become popular on a large scale.

Let's talk about bias:

The bandwagon effect, which was coined during the 1848 presidential election, describes the tendency to start supporting a cause, movement, product, person, or behavior because of its popularity. Research has shown that this tendency can override an individual’s opinion.

Where This Bias Occurs:

The bandwagon effect occurs in multiple arenas, from politics to economics to activism. The bandwagon effect shows up markedly in politics. Candidates aim for definitive wins in the early primaries in hopes of creating a bandwagon effect. Often, this strategy works, with the candidate who won the early primary securing their party’s nomination. Research has suggested that as a candidate’s popularity and media coverage grows, people “jump on the bandwagon” for them until there is one clear frontrunner, determined by popularity.

The bandwagon effect is also prevalent in the economy. When a product quickly gains popularity, the demand for it skyrockets, sometimes to the point where it becomes scarce, increasing its value. Think the “Tickle Me Elmo” craze of the mid-90s.

Social media has intensified the bandwagon effect on product popularity. One prominent example is “The TikTok Leggings,” which went viral in November 2020. The leggings gained popularity via the hashtag #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt after one user reviewed them in a TikTok viral video.

The bandwagon effect on social media isn’t limited to products, though. Trends in online activism are also driven by this phenomenon. However, this is not always positive. A salient example of this effect is the public's participation in the Black Lives Matter movement. Dr. Shane A. McCoy of The Feminist Pedagogue examined this phenomenon after the Charleston shootings, during the primary season for the 2016 election, arguing that jumping on the bandwagon of racial justice a reactionary response driven by people’s desire to look good in the eyes of others. Mariah L. Wellman also explored how bandwagon effects in activism tend to create performative activism instead of real change in the wake of #BlackOutTuesday in June 2020.

How It Affects You:

When designing a new product or upgrading an existing product, brands have an opportunity to assess how they can create their own bandwagon effect for their product or capitalize on an existing bandwagon effect to market and sell their product.

Research suggests that the primary motivations driving the bandwagon effect in product marketing are: the desire to be part of the dominant group, the desire to display status by owning a product perceived as a status symbol, the desire to emulate aspirational figures – like celebrities and social media influencers – through the purchase of products they’ve used or endorsed, fear of missing out (FOMO), and anxiety about being judged for not owning the product. To create their own bandwagon effect, brands must understand how to leverage these motivations during the product development process.

The second approach is to identify current products that have elicited a bandwagon effect and innovate on those products or create a product that adds value to that product. The risk of being seen as copying instead of innovating is a major risk of capitalizing on an existing bandwagon, but it can be mitigated during the product development process by focusing on differentiation.

However, brands should be careful about how they leverage the bandwagon effect. If attempts to create a bandwagon effect around a new product are perceived by the customer as manipulative or too closely aligned with a popular existing product, they could reject the product and lose trust in the brand.

The bandwagon effect also impacts how a brand presents itself to the public. When social or political issues make headlines, brands often choose to make a public statement in support of the issue to communicate that the brand is socially conscious. However, this can easily backfire. When brands started stating their support for Black Lives Matter in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd, mMany younger consumers – particularly Gen Zers – perceived this support as performative and “jumping on the bandwagon” to cultivate a favorable image. It negatively impacted their views of the brands. So, it’s important for brands to consider whether jumping on the bandwagon of a social or political issue is the right move.

How It Affects Customer Behavior:

Decades of research has shown that the bandwagon effect has a marked effect on consumer behavior. When a product is perceived as in demand, trendy, or a symbol of status, more people want to buy that product. As the product gains even more attention, more people “jump on the bandwagon” by taking an action.

Returning to the TikTok Leggings example; the leggings initially gained popularity through a TikTok product review and the effective use of a viral hashtag. This got a significant amount of attention on the product, leading to the social pressure to buy the leggings. The popularity of the leggings intensified when singer and social media phenom Lizzo got them, a few months after they went viral on TikTok. Research has found that because influencers are often highly trusted by their followers and represent an aspirational goal, so their product endorsements are highly effective.

The TikTok leggings provide a particularly apt example of the bandwagon effect on consumers. Lizzo didn’t start the TikTok leggings trend. She jumped on the bandwagon after it had already gone viral. But the extra attention the product gained when Lizzo wore the leggings, created a new bandwagon effect due to her popularity on social media.

The TikTok Leggings trend demonstrates how social media can create a bandwagon effect on its own, persuading consumers to purchase a product they’d never heard of before simply because of its popularity on social media. The trend also demonstrates the power of celebrities and influencers to create or intensify the bandwagon effect due to their credibility with their fans/followers.

However, the bandwagon effect can also have a negative effect on consumer behavior. Returning to the Black Lives Matter example. As Black Lives Matter made headlines in 2015, politicians began meeting with the organization, celebrities began speaking out in favor of the organization, and public support grew. This support migrated to social media and millions jumped on the bandwagon. However, as previously stated, when brands expressed their support for Black Live Matter, customers did not reward them with more loyalty or purchases.

Systemic Effects:

The bandwagon effect has a powerful influence on social behavior and decision-making that can impact individuals, small groups, large groups, and even society as a whole. When a product gains popularity, especially on social media, this can greatly influence people’s decision to purchase the product. This happens because people use product purchases to associate themselves with groups, signal to others that they are part of a group, and display their financial and social status.

This can be a good thing for both the consumer and the brand responsible for the product. The consumer gets the popular product and the brand gets a massive increase in sales.

However, the bandwagon effect’s power to drive decision-making and purchasing can also lead to people ignoring or changing their own opinions to justify purchasing a popular product, which can cause problems after purchase. Research has shown that the bandwagon effect can lead to impulsive purchasing, which can lead to consumer regret. This can result in product returns or a negative personal association with the brand.

If customers ignore their instincts or change their opinion on a product because of the bandwagon effect, they may react strongly if the product doesn’t meet expectations, even if those expectations were unrealistic. This can lead to a damaged relationship with the brand and potentially damage the brand’s reputation if the product starts to receive bad reviews online. The Pink Sauce fiasco is a perfect example of this potential consequence of the bandwagon effect.

Why It Happens:

The literature on the bandwagon effect suggests that the primary motivations driving this phenomenon are: the desire to be part of the dominant group, the desire to display status by owning a product perceived as a status symbol, the desire to emulate aspirational figures – like celebrities and social media influencers – through the purchase of products they’ve used or endorsed, fear of missing out (FOMO), and anxiety about being judged for not owning the product.

The core of each of these motivations is relational. The products they purchase create a connection to others in the group and communicate that someone is part of the group. Acquiring a product perceived to be a status symbol signals that a person is of a certain status – financially or socially – compared to others. Buying a product that a person’s favorite social media influencer uses makes them feel like part of that community and signals to others that they’re part of the group.

The bandwagon effect also plays on people’s fears of being excluded from the group. They may decide to purchase a product because they fear that they won’t be seen as part of the group or that they will be perceived as inferior to their peers if they don’t have the product.

Why Is It Important?:

The bandwagon effect impacts brands in multiple ways, both positive and negative.

Brands that understand how to leverage the bandwagon effect can use this information during the product design and marketing process to create successful product launches and sales. Apple’s development, marketing, and launch process for the original iPhone is a stellar example of this strategy. The iPhone was developed and marketed with popularity in mind. It was cutting edge technology combining functionality and entertainment, and it was marketed specifically to the tech-savvy younger generation instead of business people or Boomers. Additionally, Apple had already established their products as status symbols with the iPod. So, when the iPhone officially launched, it was already perceived as a popular status symbol. Millennials literally camped at Apple stores to acquire the most innovative status symbol on the market. The attention this garnered created even more hype for the iPhone, intensifying the bandwagon effect created by the launch.

Understanding why and how current products on the market have created a bandwagon effect can also help direct brands’ product development. Studying products that have created a bandwagon effect can expose opportunities for innovations on those products that could replace those products. An example of this is Meta’s creation of Reels in 2020, which was a direct response to the popularity of TikTok. Instagram attempted to “jump on the bandwagon” of short form video content that TikTok created, though their success with this tactic has varied.

Another approach to leveraging an existing bandwagon effect is to create a product that intersects with a popular product. An example of this is the Top Nine app. The app was created to curate a post of people’s top Instagram posts at the end of each year. Top Nine created its own bandwagon effect by identifying the opportunity to intersect with Instagram, a product with its own powerful bandwagon effect. For a few years, millions of Instagram users used the app to create end of the year reflection posts.

There are multiple reasons why a brand may want to leverage the bandwagon effect when developing and marketing new products. Research has found that the bandwagon effect creates a perception of quality. When a product gains widespread popularity, people assume that it must be a good product. This is particularly true when social media influencers or celebrities are among the people buying, using, or endorsing the product. This perception of quality can drive people’s decision to purchase the product themselves. It can also lead to a Fear of Missing Out effect, where people purchase the product because they think they’re missing out on something great because “everyone else” is purchasing or talking about the product.

However, brands should be aware that most bandwagon effects are relatively short lived. After an initial burst of extreme popularity, most products that generated a bandwagon effect will fade in popularity. Either the public forgets about the product in favor of the next viral product, or the product gets replaced by a more innovative product, or the product becomes obsolete, as so many do in today’s fast moving market. Top Nine is also a perfect example of this. Instagram blocked the code that Top Nine used to generate their signature posts, making the app almost completely obsolete.

As previously mentioned, the bandwagon effect also influences how brands present themselves to the public, specifically in the form of brand activism. When brands choose to make a public statement or launch a campaign in support of a social or political cause, they often feel the need to do so because of the bandwagon effect. The cause is being covered in the news, people are talking about it on social media, actions are being organized around the cause, and brands decide to hop on the bandwagon for the cause. Though the intentions behind this decision may be genuine, these public shows of support by brands are often seen as hypocritical by the public, according to the BBC. Hopping on the bandwagon by showing support for a specific cause can be perceived as especially hypocritical if the brand is doing little to actually support the cause in its business operations. Often, these gestures are perceived as brands leveraging a cause to “raise their profiles.” Or worse, these brands are seen as pandering to break into a new market. Because the bandwagon effect of brand activism can so easily backfire, brands should analyze the costs and benefits before they speak out on social or political issues.

How To Offset It:

Hopping on the bandwagon isn’t always a bad thing for brands. When done consciously, ethically, and authentically, leveraging the bandwagon effect can lead to a successful product launch. However, it’s important to understand how to offset the negative impacts of the bandwagon effect.

  1. Create A Marketing Strategy That Doesn’t Rely On Popularity. Since bandwagon effects are often short-lived and rely on the whims of consumers, it’s essential to have a marketing strategy that doesn’t rely on the product becoming popular and staying popular. Creating a bandwagon effect for the launch of the new product should be a temporary strategy, followed up by a robust marketing strategy based on the product’s features, functionality, and reliability. The launch strategy shouldn’t rely entirely on creating a bandwagon effect either. Predicting which products will go viral is notoriously difficult, so brands should not rely on this as their primary marketing strategy.
  2. Be A Trustworthy Brand

One of the biggest problems with the bandwagon effect happens when customers feel like they were duped into buying a product that didn’t deliver on their expectations. This can happen when they feel that brands have used manipulative marketing tactics like embellishing the features or functionality of their product. This can also happen when customers’ expectations of the product are unrealistically high because of the claims made in the brand’s advertising or by third parties on behalf of the brand. If an influencer says that those TikTok leggings are going to make the customer’s butt look amazing, and the leggings don’t deliver the way the customers thought they would, this makes the brand seem untrustworthy, even though they weren’t the ones making the claims. Brands can build trust by being honest and transparent about their products, choosing trustworthy people to partner with, and providing excellent customer service to dissatisfied customers.

  1. Develop A Strategy For Addressing Social And Political Causes

Social and political causes present a great opportunity for brands to express their values and show consumers that they’re socially conscious. However, it’s important to have an overall strategy aimed at doing this in a way that builds trust between the brand and the consumers. The brand’s leadership team should decide in advance, not in the moment, which causes they will make statements on and what those statements will be. The leadership team should also strategize ways to implement the values of those causes within their companies so their support of the cause isn’t seen as performative or hypocritical. If possible, publicize the brand’s support for each cause and the actions the brand is taking to support those causes before the cause makes headlines. Try to avoid reactionary statements at the moment the cause is trending.

How It All Started:

The phrases “the bandwagon effect” and “jumping on the bandwagon” were first used during the 1848 presidential election. Presidential candidate Zachary Taylor was on the campaign trail when he was invited to literally jump on the circus bandwagon of a very famous circus performer. He gained an incredible amount of recognition with local voters because of his association with the performer, and other politicians wanted to literally “jump on the bandwagon” because of Taylor’s success. The response of Taylor’s presidential rivals is the original example of the bandwagon effect, the tendency to support or do something simply because it is popular.

Though the term “the bandwagon effect” has been used for over a century, the first studies into the phenomenon weren’t conducted until the 1950s.

The seminal paper on the bandwagon effect that popularized the use of the term in economics was written by H. Leibenstein and published in “The Quarterly Journal of Economics.” In this paper, Leibenstein sought to explain the phenomenon of conspicuous consumption, which he defined as purchasing that had little to no functional purpose, but had significant social purpose. Leibenstein theorized that this conspicuous consumption was primarily driven by a person’s desire to “join the crowd” or “be one of the boys.” He named this phenomenon the bandwagon effect. Leibenstein also theorized that the desire to display status through purchasing luxury items contributed to the bandwagon effect. He dubbed this particular aspect of the bandwagon effect, “the snob effect.”

All of the literature about the bandwagon effect still draws on the theories that Leibenstein laid out in that paper. Of course, new understandings of the motivations behind the bandwagon effect and the way it actually plays out in purchasing decisions have evolved since then. But the core concept has remained the same.

Examples Of How It Affects The Product Process:

When designing new products, brands that understand the bandwagon effect can make choices driven to creating that phenomenon for their products. These choices could include things like partnerships with trusted social media influencers who agree to test the product and post about their experiences; product design aimed at younger generations that are more likely to talk about the product on social media; focusing on the intersection of functionality and entertainment, as Apple did with the iPhone; focusing on quality so the product earns good reviews on social media, in print, and from early adopters; using social media marketing over more traditional forms of marketing; creating an air of scarcity around the product, maybe by only producing a limited first run; and marketing the product as a luxury product or tying it to a product already established as a status symbol, maybe a brand’s previous products.

When leveraging an existing bandwagon effect in the creation of a new product, it’s important for brands to consider how their new product could be perceived by the public and competitors. As Variety pointed out when Reels launched, Meta’s new project was widely perceived as a “copycat,” and some pointed out that Meta’s previous attempts to make “copycat” products had failed. Brands should understand the risks of leveraging an existing bandwagon effect, but understand that it can pay off with the correct attention to product design.

When creating a product that intersects with an already popular product, it’s important to understand how that interdependency impacts the new product. If the existing product loses popularity or changes its design or functionality so the new product no longer adds value, then the benefits of leveraging the existing product’s bandwagon effect disappear. This makes designing products that leverage existing bandwagon effects risky. However, sometimes they pay off.

Key Takeaways:

What Is The Bandwagon Effect?

  • The bandwagon effect refers to the tendency all humans have to do something, support something, or purchase something because other people are doing so.
  • The bandwagon effect shows up in multiple arenas including politics, economics, and activist movements.
  • The impact of the bandwagon effect has been intensified by social media.

Why It Happens

  • The motivations behind the bandwagon effect are all relational and based in the human desire to be part of a group as well as the human fear of being excluded from the group.
  • The bandwagon effect in consumer behavior is driven by the desire to signal social status through the purchase of a product and the desire to align oneself with the dominant group through purchase of a product.
  • The fear of being excluded from the group by not jumping on the bandwagon or missing out on something that the rest of the group is doing is a powerful driver of the bandwagon effect.

Why Is It Important

  • Brands that understand the bandwagon effect can effectively leverage this cognitive bias to drive product sales and brand loyalty.
  • However, the bandwagon effect can easily backfire because it can be perceived as manipulative marketing, the whims of the consumers change, or the product popularity fades.
  • Understanding the bandwagon effect and how it motivates brands to portray themselves to the public is an essential part of building trust with consumers.

What Are Its Effects?

  • The primary effect of the bandwagon effect is getting people to engage in the same behavior as the dominant group. For brands, this translates to purchasing a product because other people are purchasing the product.
  • When it backfires, the bandwagon effect can lead to buyer’s remorse because people feel like they went against their own desires to purchase a product.
  • The bandwagon effect can lead to unrealistic expectations of a product, which can erode trust in the brand.

How To Offset It

  • Create a marketing strategy that doesn’t rely on a product becoming popular and plans for drops in consumer interest when the trend fades.
  • Create trust with customers by creating a quality product, setting expectations, and providing excellent customer service.
  • Create a strategy for speaking out on social and political causes and take actions that align with support for those causes.