Hit Makers Explores the Rise of Cultural Phenoms

Michael Krauss
Key Takeaways

​What?​ Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction is a must-read for marketers, writes Michael Krauss. 

So what? The book deconstructs popularity into rational elements you can act on, Krauss writes.

Now what? "If you want to understand why 'Star Wars,' 'Rock Around the Clock' or Mickey Mouse were all hits—or if you want to create tomorrow’s hits yourself —you should read Hit Makers," Krauss says. 

Why is Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction a must-read for marketers? It deconstructs popularity into rational elements you can act on. It explains in thoughtful and persuasive terms why some products and services become sensations. That knowledge is crucial for all marketers who want to succeed. (Plus, the book earned the AMA’s 2018 Berry Book Award for the best book in marketing.)

Author Derek Thompson, a senior editor at The Atlantic and a weekly news analyst for NPR, provides an array of clear, cogent and concise examples of hits, explaining why and how they were successful. He explains why Claude Monet and Edgar Degas hit it big while their contemporary Gustave Caillebotte is an unknown. Yet without Caillebotte, the leading impressionists—perhaps impressionism itself—would be unknown. 

Thompson tells another story about song writer Savan Kotecha, who received 160 rejection letters while trying to break into the music business. Kotecha eventually landed a job as a writer and producer for other songwriters, such as Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, Usher, Maroon 5, Carrie Underwood and One Direction. Kotecha’s journey to sell more than 200 million copies of his songs worldwide is instructive whether you are in entertainment or industrial products.

Thompson studied political science and law at Northwestern University. He says he wrote Hit Makers with two questions in mind: “What is the secret of making products that people like—in music, movies, television, games, apps and more, across the vast landscape of culture?” and “Why do some products fail in these marketplaces while similar ideas catch on and become massive hits?”  


 Derek Thompson: "Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction" | Talks at Google


If you read Hit Makers, you’ll learn that “going viral” may not be as accurate a term as we think—or at least, it may be rarer than we think. Success may be due to large-scale broadcast distribution rather than infectious word of mouth. That’s not to say that things can’t take off in a contagious way akin to biological genes, but there is more to it than we typically consider. 

Reading Hit Makers, I realized that innovation requires more than a unique product or service. Successful breakthroughs often transcend the product itself. How the product is distributed may also be far more important. P&G and General Foods had the coffee business under their thumbs with the Folgers and Maxwell House brands until Starbucks entered the market in a new way. 

I found Thompson’s discussion of uniqueness and familiarity in song writing particularly powerful. For a new song to be a hit it must balance familiarity and novelty. Thompson backs this up with scientific research. 

Many executives like to compare business success with baseball success, Thompson writes. “In both activities, one can fail 70% of the time and still be an all-time great. But the difference between baseball and business is that baseball has what [Amazon CEO Jeff] Bezos called a ‘truncated outcome distribution.’ Home runs can only be so big,” Thompson writes. 

He quotes Bezos: “When you swing, no matter how well you connect with the ball, the most runs you can get is four. In business, every once in a while, when you step up to the plate, you can score 1,000 runs. The long-tailed distribution of returns is why it’s important to be bold. Big winners pay for so many experiments.”

Thompson explains how the success of cable television shows such as “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” have changed their networks and their industries. “Some hits save their company. A special few revolutionize their business. They score 1,000 runs,” he writes.

The story I enjoyed most in Hit Makers was the tale about Walt Disney and Herman Samuel Kominetzky, who became known as “Kay” Kamen. “In the beginning, Disney was not the profit-gushing king of entertainment,” Thompson writes. “His company rarely operated with strong and steady earnings in the 1920s, and those were the boom years for the U.S. economy. Then the Great Depression hit. To go from artist to empire in the Depression, Walt Disney needed a heroic sidekick.” 

Kamen asked Disney for what we would now call the merchandising rights to his ideas. “Let me sell your cartoon mouse,” he said to Disney. Kamen went on to introduce the Mickey Mouse watch, which debuted at the Chicago world’s fair in 1933. 

“Disney might not have been a born businessman, but he absorbed Kamen’s lesson: The art of film is film, but the business of movies is everywhere,” Thompson writes. “Disney described the strategy as ‘total merchandising,’ and the Disney empire was established.” 

If you want to understand why “Star Wars,” “Rock Around the Clock” or Mickey Mouse were all hits—or if you want to create tomorrow’s hits yourself —you should read Hit Makers

Michael Krauss
Michael Krauss is president of Market Strategy Group based in Chicago.