Atypicality and Cultural Success

Jonah Berger and Grant Packard, 2018, 18-101

Why do some things catch on? Academics and popular press writers alike have long been interested in cultural dynamics, or why some songs, movies, and other cultural items become popular. Some songs become hits, for example, while others fail, and some movies become blockbusters while others don’t. Why are some cultural items more successful than others? And how can managers use these insights to help make their products and services more popular?

In this study, Jonah Berger and Grant Packard suggest that how different cultural items are to others out there currently may help shape success. Research has demonstrated the important influence of culture on individual-level psychological processes; at the same time, these individual-level processes shape the norms, practices, and items that make up collective culture. In particular, people have a drive for stimulation and value items that are different from what they have experienced before. This suggests that cultural items that are more atypical, or differentiated from their peers, may be liked more and, consequently, become more popular. 

The researchers use natural language processing of thousands of songs to examine the relationship between lyrical differentiation (i.e., atypicality) and song popularity.  Using Billboard’s digital download rankings (, they sampled ranking data once every three months over a three-year period (2014-16) for each of seven major genres (Christian, country, dance, pop, rap, rock, and R&B). They acquired the complete lyrics for each of these songs at and used latent Dirichlet allocation to determine the main themes discussed across songs.

They calculate differentiation (atypicality) as the absolute value difference between a song’s lyrics and the genre mean, and aggregate these differences across topics. Finally, OLS regression examines the relationship between lyrical differentiation and song performance (i.e., chart ranking). 

Results indicate that the more different a song’s lyrics are from its genre, the more popular it becomes. A 16% increase in lyrical differentiation, for example, is associated with a one-position improvement in chart ranking. This relationship holds controlling for a range of factors including radio airplay, artist, time, the topics themselves, number of words, language complexity, and other major linguistic features. A partitioned regression model shows that this relationship is weaker in genres where lyrics matter less (i.e., dance) or where differentiation matters less (i.e., pop) and occurs for lyrical topics but not style. 

Overall, the results shed light on cultural dynamics, why things become popular, and the psychological foundations of culture more broadly. They also suggest that managers making cultural products may want to highlight difference as a way to drive success.

Jonah Berger is Associate Professor of Marketing, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. Grant Packard is Assistant Professor, Marketing, Lazaridis School, Wilfrid Laurier University.

The authors thank Shawn Zamechek for assistance with the LDA analysis.



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