Think of fads as epidemics
Convincing just a few people can make product acceptance explode

Scratch the surface of any marketer, and you will find someone who dreams of latching onto a big fad like Rubik's Cube, Pet Rocks or Cabbage Patch dolls. But how do these rather banal items pop out of nowhere to suddenly become ubiquitous?

According to Malcolm Gladwell, the best way to think of fads is as epidemics. Fashion trends, the transformation of unknown books into bestsellers, in fact a wide variety of changes that we see in our daily lives spread the way viruses do: they are contagious, appear suddenly and evolve rapidly.

For example Hush Puppy shoes, were close to dead in the mid-1990s, and Wolverine, the manufacturer was thinking about phasing them out of production. But then for no apparent reason a bunch of kids from New York's Soho and East Village districts started showing up in downtown Manhattan bars wearing Hush Puppies. The shoes were by then so out of style and rare, that they could only be bought in small resale and independent stores.

Soon after, fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi was rumored to be wearing Hush Puppies. Not much later other designers such as Anna Sui, and John Bartlett were calling Wolverine for permission to use the shoes as accessories in their spring collections. Sales of Hush Puppies jumped from 430,000 pairs in 1995, to four times that number the next year. In 1996 the company received an award for outstanding fashion accessory. What is remarkable about this success is that it appears that company officials did little different to promote the shoes than they had in previous years.

In his new book The Tipping Point, Gladwell, a writer for The New Yorker magazine argues that just as a few people can start and spread an epidemic, so too can a few trendsetters fill the seats in an empty restaurant or start a new trend.

This idea is not new. Marketing writers have been talking for years about the influence of early adopters in starting or reviving a product life cycle, but Gladwell uses interesting insights and metaphors to make his point. Although he approaches the phenomena more from a sociological point of view, his work is potentially useful to marketers trying to understand how to promote their products.

The phrase Tipping Point comes from the 1970s and was used to describe the flight of whites from northeastern American cities into the suburbs. Sociologists noticed once the number of African Americans moving into predominantly white neighborhoods grew to certain point -- say 20 per cent - the community would "tip" and the remaining whites would leave almost immediately.

Gladwell believes that fads spread the same way, slowly and quietly at first, but once they reach critical mass - the Tipping Point - then all of a sudden, seemingly instantaneously everyone seems affected. If you were to look at a graph of a fad's progression, the Tipping Point would be that where adoption shoots up in close to a straight line.

As an example Gladwell cites Sharp. In 1984, the year the company introduced the first low-priced fax machine 80,000 were sold, sales continued to grow quickly but all of a sudden, in 1987, one million were sold. Since the installed based was now so large, it made sense for everyone to own one. The next year fax sales doubled to more than two million units. A graph of those adopting the Internet would show a similar pattern, with the tipping point probably occurring in late 1995.

Comparing the adoption of new ideas to the spread of an epidemic may seem an unusual thesis, but Gladwell backs up his argument with concrete examples.

For example a study by epidemiologist John Potterat of a gonorrhea epidemic in Colorado Springs, Colorado delved into the lives of sufferers who walked into a local public health clinic for a period of six months. By questioning them about their sexual histories, and filtering out those who had infected only one person, Potterat was able to trace the majority of the remaining cases as originating from168 people living in four small neighborhoods and frequenting the same six bars.

These 168 - who were basically responsible for tipping a gonorrhea epidemic in a city of 100,000 people, were not your typical homebodies. They had far more partners than the norm, and their activities, led to infections of many others, which started a self propagating cycle.

Gladwell those few chiefly responsible for spreading fads into three categories. Connectors are those who know and maintain contact with a lot of people. If they adopt a product, a lot of other people are likely to hear about it through word of mouth.

But although Connectors may spread ideas they are primarily motivated by interacting with other people, convincing them of anything is only a secondary concern. Nor are Connectors likely to come up with any new ideas themselves. That role is taken up by Mavens who although they do not necessarily know a lot of people, they tend have a strong interest in a particular field. Think of your buddy who showed you how to sign up for a free E-mail account at Hotmail.

Salesmen - the final category -- are those who make it their business to convince other people to accept new ideas. They differ from Connectors in that although Connectors may talk to a lot of people, and may mention a new idea or fad that's getting hot, their goal is just to chat, not convince - salesmen make it their business to convince people of new ideas they have adopted.

If relatively few people are responsible for the spread of new ideas, then marketers can save a heck of a lot of promotion dollars, by just figuring out who are the Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen in a target group, and to market products directly to them.


In last week's column the acronym DSL was defined as Dedicated System Line, when the proper terminology is Digital Subscriber Line.

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