The Tipping Point Summary

Malcom Gladwell

The Tipping Point

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The Tipping Point Summary

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Malcolm Gladwell’s debut non-fiction book, The Tipping Point, analyzes social trends from their beginnings and explores what makes some soar and others wither away. Gladwell received an estimated $1-1.5 million advance to write the book, which was published in 2000 and sold 1.7 million copies by 2006. Using data and real science behind cultural “epidemics”, Gladwell explains that a large number of patterns and factors underlie every trend. Small actions, strategically placed at the correct time and with the correct people, can create a “tipping point” for a product, a domino effect that spreads a product’s popularity like a virus. The book, therefore, has become popular with people in marketing as well as those that work in public health.

Gladwell outlines a three-step plan to propel a product to a tipping point, each using viral epidemics as examples. The first is the Law of the Few. A small number of highly “infectious” people create awareness for a product by either spreading the word or using the product themselves. According to Gladwell, there are three types of such people: mavens, connectors, and salesmen. A maven is a consumer expert whose opinion is well-regarded by people in the maven’s field. Connectors are, rather than experts, exceedingly popular individuals whose magnetic social spheres are a perfect incubator for viral products. Lastly, salesmen are smart, enthusiastic consumers gifted in the art of persuasion. Gladwell’s main example is Paul Revere, who possessed qualities of each of the three types of “infectious” people.

The second part of the plan is called the Stickiness Factor. Both physical and media products must have something naturally ‘infectious’ about them, meaning people want to talk about them. What makes a product relevant, memorable, and worthy of conversation? Gladwell quotes from the Journal of Product Management (2000) which provides ten critical factors that makes a product “sticky:” uniqueness, aesthetics, association, engagement, excellence, expressive value, functional value, nostalgic value, personification, and cost. For this law, Gladwell uses Sesame Street as his primary example. Its relatively small tweak of making the puppets interact with real humans caused the show’s popularity to soar.

Lastly, the spread of an epidemic depends on the local environment. Is the context right for the trend to succeed? Gladwell uses the example of New York City’s campaign against crime in the mid 1990s. Authorities removed graffiti in the city’s subways and more heavily enforced laws against fare-dodging. The environment changed and the crime rate dropped. The theory is that consumers are heavily influenced by their environment and are thus easily persuaded. Using the example of the “broken windows theory,” Gladwell illustrates that broken windows on a street and other forms of vandalism encourage similar behavior until the street is crime ridden and blighted. As for selling products, marketers can use the following six psychological principles of influence to establish the “environment:” scarcity, majority, authority, beauty, reciprocity, and consistency.

The final chapters are thorough investigations of a product or trend’s journey to popularity that illustrate one or more aspects of achieving the tipping point. Rebecca Wells’ novel The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood was especially appealing to book clubs of middle-aged women in Northern California. This population was uniquely positioned to spread the book’s popularity by way of recommendations and verbal advocacy. Airwalk shoes were initially marketed toward the skateboarding subculture, but gained popularity through an effective marketing campaign that colored the shoes as the height of “cool.” The company used Tibetan Buddhism, gang culture, and an ironic embracing of prep culture to associate their shoes with “coolness.” Lastly, Gladwell explores the perpetually high rate of teen smoking in the United States and an alarming adolescent suicide rate among males in Micronesia. These trends, he asserts, are symptomatic of two principles: teenagers are likely to imitate others and try new things and especially poised to indulge in dramatic, romanticized behavior like smoking and suicide. These actions, in turn, are more likely to attract attention from others.

In his conclusion, Gladwell provides one last illustration of the tipping point. A nurse trying to raise breast cancer awareness among African-American women targeted hair salons as the environment in which to spread her message. In such a relaxed context as a hair salon, people are receptive to new information, as opposed to a formal educational setting. While these types of low-key methods are often dismissed as solutions that treat symptoms rather than the problem, Gladwell claims that it’s exactly these types of small, focused actions that over time can build to a tipping point. This illustration encompasses The Tipping Point’s main theme: large-scale trends, whether they be related to health concerns or products, can be similarly traced back to precise, imperceptible events that build momentum over time.