Popularity is not a state of grace. In business, it is treasure hard-won on the battlefields of product development and marketing, then leveraged or squandered or stolen back. Most of the products and ideas showcased here—the stuff we buy, sell, and otherwise consume the most—owe their status in part to aggressive sales tactics, from knocking on doors to strong-arming grocers to gain the best shelf space. In its most potent and permanent form, however, popularity transcends sales pitches, advertising, fads, and maybe even conscious choice. One rarely reads or talks or thinks about peanut butter, yet Jif has eaten Skippy’s lunch for 20 years, a sustained level of popularity that the iPhone can only dream about. While Jif rolls on, the iPhone—the most buzzworthy product of the last decade—will probably take its place amid the Palm and the Walkman in the great closeout bin in the sky. In short, if we have to think about a purchase, it’s in a precarious position. The things we rarely pause to consider are the ones that stay on top.
In the following slides, you’ll read about the churches we visit and the junk food we eat, the sneakers we wear, the Web videos we e-mail to each other, and the prescription drugs we take. Some is stuff we legitimately adore, such as Nike Air Force 1s or cuddly Labrador retrievers. Some make us scratch our heads—who buys a white car? Oh, you did? Sorry. See, that’s another thing about popularity. Everybody has an opinion, and to some degree everybody defines himself against the mainstream. A few of the things we use the most are the ones we love the least, like Facebook, which according to ForeSee Results holds an approval rating close to that of the IRS. Our mission here is not to judge but to use the best available methodology—it varies widely from item to item—to determine the winners of the never-ending popularity contest that is the American economy. Your taste may differ. In fact, we’re sure it does.
Car Color: White
Are we a color-blind continent? Fully 17.8 percent of cars sold in North America last year were white—the No.1 choice, according to the annual DuPont Global Automotive Color Popularity Report. Black, the No.2 color, scored a close second with 17 percent, having climbed six points since 2005. Silver, the global favorite, placed third in North America, totaling 16.7 percent of sales. —Caroline Winter
Item at Walmart: Banana
Wal-Mart which registered $405 billion in sales last year and is the largest retailer in the world, sold more bananas than any other single item.
Job: Sales Clerk
The Bureau of Labor Statistics is brutally honest describing the job of retail salesperson in its 2010-11 Occupational Outlook Handbook: “Advancement opportunities are limited,” workers “often stand for long periods,” and many “work evenings and weekends, particularly during peak retail periods.” Then there’s the pay: a 2009 annual median of $20,260, 61 percent of that for all jobs. Still, it’s the most popular job in America, based on the 4.2 million people who were being paid to do it in May 2009, when the BLS conducted its survey. Next are cashiers (3.4 million), general office clerks (2.8 million), food preparation and serving workers (2.7 million), and registered nurses (2.6 million). Eyeing the list for jobs that sound more fun, we find bartenders (490,000 being paid for the work at survey time), actors (40,000), athletes and sports competitors (14,000), and models (1,510). Then again, most of us lack the cheekbones to model or the jump shot to play in the NBA. As a means to a weekly paycheck, retail salesperson really does deserve its No. 1 ranking. —Peter Coy
Cereal: Honey Nut Cheerios
Honey Nut Cheerios made their debut in 1979 as a supporting player in the General Mills cast, and two decades later it overtook the star. Launched by a team that included then-Chief Executive Stephen Sanger, it was the first of 10 extensions of the venerable Cheerios brand, which now include MultiGrain, Banana Nut, and Yogurt Burst. In 2008 it finally became the top-selling cereal in the U.S.; last year it sold 102 million units (not counting sales at Wal-Mart), according to research firm SymphonyIRI Group.
In part, Honey Nut Cheerios owes its success to the U.S. Hispanic market, the fastest-growing demographic. Marketing targeted to Hispanics touted the cereal’s cholesterol-fighting benefits and helped boost sales to them by 65 percent over the past three years. The brand was also likely helped by a Latino preference for sweeter products, according to the Latinum Network in Bethesda, Md. The product comes by its sweetness the old-fashioned way—it really does contain honey—although it uses “natural almond flavor,” not actual nuts. —Matthew Boyle
3. Post Honey Bunches of Oats
4. Kellogg Frosted Mini Wheats
5. Kellogg Frosted Flakes
With nearly a billion dollars in annual sales, Lay’s market share dwarfs that of its rivals, according to SymphonyIRI Group. Founded in 1932 in Nashville, Tenn., by Herman Lay, the brand went national in 1965, the year parent company Frito-Lay merged with Pepsi to form a food and beverage giant that uses its size to command space on the crowded snack shelf.
Competitor Kettle Foods is on the ascent, thanks to high-end chip flavors such as Spicy Thai and New York Cheddar. Sales last year totaled $250 million from 12 countries. In February, Diamond Foods (NasdaqGS: DMND – News) bought Kettle for $615 million, but compared with Lay’s, Kettle is just one chip in the bag. —Matthew Boyle
2. Wavy Lays
4. Pringles Super Stack
Yes, the FDA classifies shrimp as a fish. And yes, the former special occasion appetizer is now America’s mainstay seafood. On average, Americans ate 4.1 pounds of shrimp in 2008, according to the National Fisheries Institute, beating canned tuna by nearly 50 percent. The crustacean has been king for nearly a decade; from 1980 to 2008 the amount of shrimp consumed by Americans nearly tripled. “It’s the expanding availability and affordability,” says the NFI’s Gavin Gibbons. —Sommer Saadi
2. Canned tuna
Labrador retrievers are the most popular purebred dogs in the country, according to American Kennel Club statistics. The family-friendly pooches have reigned for the past 19 years, though German shepherds are gaining favor—they overtook Yorkshire terriers for No. 2. Golden retrievers and beagles hold the fourth and fifth spots. Of the top five, only the Yorkie is not used for law enforcement and homeland security tasks, such as border patrol, bomb and narcotics detection, and searches for missing people. —Caroline Winter
Worldwide Vacation: France
If the French seem irritated by foreigners, they have good reason. Their country is the world’s most popular travel destination by far. For each of the past five years, France has attracted at least 19 million more tourists than its closest competitor, according to U.N. World Tourism Organization statistics. Last year 74.2 million visitors streamed into the land of supermodel First Ladies and Camembert—and that after a 6.3 percent dip caused by the financial crisis. Being the most popular doesn’t equal bringing in the most cash, however. The U.S. and Spain—which battle back and forth for the No.2 and No.3 favored spots—both earn more from international tourism than France does. Last year the U.S. made $94.2 billion and Spain $53.2 billion, while France saw $48.7 billion in tourism revenue. When it comes to spending on travel, Germans dominate: In 2009 the country of 82 million spent $80 billion on travel. (And Paul Krugman claims they’re not doing enough to stimulate the global economy.) Americans, in second place, spent $73 billion. —Caroline Winter
ColorStay, ColorBurst, Super Lustrous—all popular choices from Revlon America’s go-to brand of lipstick. Over the past year Americans spent more than $300 million to beautify their lips in supermarkets, drugstores, and mass merchandise outlets excluding Wal-Mart, according to SymphonyIRI Group, a Chicago market research firm. Nearly a third of that went to Revlon, which began applying itself to cosmetics in 1932 with an opaque nail polish. Its best-selling lipstick, a pinkish hue called SoftSilver Rose, retails for $7.99 —Sommer Saadi
Sneaker: Nike Air Force 1
Air Force 1, released in 1982, was the first basketball shoe to include Nike’s Air technology, which embeds airbag cushions in the soles of the shoes. But the sneaker’s success came largely off the court, as a fashion accessory embraced first by the hip-hop community and now by just about everybody.
Nike did not anticipate this level of popularity. The company largely stopped making AF1 after one year and didn’t resume full-scale production until almost two decades later, when it was brought back by popular demand. Now it’s a staple product; the all-white, low-cut version has been the best-selling sneaker in the U.S. since 2007; overall the brand sold 11 million pairs in 2009 for more than $1 billion, according to researcher Sports One Source. It has also become a blank slate for designers to experiment with different themes, materials, and color combinations. About 1,700 versions have been produced, using everything from 18-carat gold to chenille, to straw, to crocodile skin. Nike, in Beaverton, Ore., touted the shoe’s hip-hop credibility for AFI’s 25th anniversary in 2007, commissioning a song featuring Kanye West. It keeps up a rigorous series of limited editions dedicated to such things as Black History Month and the five boroughs of New York (the latter released just last month). Oh, and some people still wear them to play basketball.—Matt Townsend