Predicting the unpredictable – agent-based models for marketing research

David G. Bakken
Harris Interactive, United States

Roger A. Parker
Boeing Commercial Airplanes, United States

INTRODUCTION

In his best-selling book The Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell describes the resurgence of the Hush Puppies brand of casual footwear. Hush Puppies came to prominence in the early 1960s with comfortable, stylish shoes made from suede pigskin. The shoes were often dyed in bright colors such as blue or red, and for a while became a “must-have” item among at least some adolescents. The brand was supported with clever and memorable television advertising. However, as tastes in footwear changed over the years, the brand declined. Then, in the 1990s, as Gladwell tells it, some free-thinking individual was spotted wearing a pair in New York City by someone who then decided he had to have a pair, and then his friends wanted the shoes, and so on and so on. Sales went from a meager 30,000 pairs annually to 430,000 in 1995 and around 1.6 million the following year. Gladwell uses this example to make an important point. Many phenomena, such as preferences and choices for some products or brands, carry along at a very low level of activity or intensity for some period and then, seemingly without explanation, become “full-blown” fads or trends. The essence of a “tipping point” is that it emerges, suddenly and unpredictably, from events that have been occurring in the background for some time.