The Tipping Point is an intriguing book that looks at how ideas spread like epidemics and what causes them to do so.
Malcolm Gladwell weaves an intriguing narrative as we explore the necessary parameters for ideas to reach a tipping point and become mainstream.
If you’re a marketer or looking to start a career in the industry, this is an interesting book to read for several reasons.
Firstly, it goes into detail about what makes an idea stick and how it reaches a critical mass that allows it to spread like wildfire.
The book also goes on to explain that the environment is a vital component in all of this. Depending on who we are and where we live, we may be exposed to certain trends or not, before they became an epidemic.
A case in point is Airwalk shoes.
They were hugely popular among skaters on the West Coast of America, as the buzz around the shoes was picked up by mainstream figures, their popularity began to spread from skaters and into the mainstream.
This was reinforced by several eye-catching and memorable adverts.
There are a lot of invaluable lessons for anyone wanting to start a business, those running one and for someone who wants to understand what makes humans tick. It’s a fascinating read!
The Tipping Point summary
Takeaway 1 – Your environment affects you more than you realise
This is a fascinating concept as it goes against much of our intuition. Gladwell uses the example of smoking to highlight this. You may think that people whose parents smoke are more likely to smoke themselves, but this is not always the case.
Your environment is more important in shaping your behaviours than you realise. Think of teenagers smoking. Most of us will have tried cigarettes at some point during our teenage years. It’s normal behaviour at those ages to experiment.
This is often in contrast to what our parents might want us to do. If your parents are vehemently against you smoking, odds are you’ll want to try it even more. The natural rebelliousness of teenagers will compel them to explore smoking even though their parents disapprove.
However, just because our parents smoke, doesn’t mean that we will. You’re much more likely to smoke if your peers do because you are actually more influenced y their behaviour than your parents.
This is a disconcerting thought, but it does make more sense the more you think about. Gladwell uses the example of children of recent immigrants. You may think they would retain the accent of their parents, but that’s not the case. They almost always pick up the accent of the environment they live in.
The same is true of the children of deaf parents. Despite not being able to speak with their parents, they still learn to speak as quickly as other children.
These revelations tell us that our environment is much more influential in shaping our behaviour than we realise.
Takeaway 2 – Once an idea reaches tipping point, its spread is unstoppable
This is the central premise of The Tipping Point. Once ideas reach a critical mass, they began to spread like wildfire.
In my lifetime I can think of a few of these epidemics that spread without warning. Pokemon was one of them.
At one point I had never heard of it, and then almost overnight its popularity exploded. All of my friends were playing the games on their Game Boy. We all bought the trading cards and brought them into school. We would obsess over the tv programme.
From having no conception of Pokemon’s existence, we became obsessive fans in a short space of time. There will have been a tipping point that caused. Enough children will have learnt about the game started playing it, until everyone wanted to play it and sales went through the roof.
The example Gladwell uses in his book is that of Hush Puppies. A classic American suede shoe, they began to increase in popularity in the early 1990s, before reaching a tipping point somewhere between 1994 and 1995.
Before this, the brand had been struggling. Sales were down to 30,000 pairs a year, mostly in out of town outlets and family stores. There was even talk of phasing out the shoes, so poor were the sales.
However, the shoes started to become popular in the clubs and bars of downtown Manhattan. Slowly but surely, the demand for the shoes started to increase. Sales reached 430,000 in 1995 and increased to four times that the following year.
The popularity of the shoes had spread amongst hip individuals in New York because no one was wearing them. Once this was noticed by fashion designers, they began to push them as trendy and an example of haute couture.
Without anyone intending to, the popularity of Hush Puppies had spread to point where they became popular to a chain reaction and tipping over the edge from obscure to popular.
Takeaway 3 – You need a sticky idea for it to tip.
One of the primary factors in what causes something to tip is what Gladwell calls the Stickiness Factor. An idea needs to be sticky enough for it to tip. What Gladwell means by this is that idea needs to be memorable enough for people to take action.
It seems an easy enough concept to understand, but implementing it is another matter. All of us would like to create ideas that are sticky and memorable, but that isn’t the case.
Not every article or video on the web becomes. Only a select few do and there are normally a few reasons for this. Maybe, the video is really funny. Maybe the article promotes an idea that is so novel or relevant that people can’t help but share it.
The point is if you try to create something to go viral, you can’t make something with this in mind. Instead, you should focus on making your idea to be as good as possible that people cannot help but share it.
Gladwell uses Sesame Street in the book as an example of the Stickiness Factor at work. We all know Sesame Street as the hugely popular children’s TV show, but this wasn’t always the case.
When the show started in the 1960s, it wasn’t as popular as it is now. To increase the popularity of the show, the creators undertook several scientific tests to increase the memorability of the show.
From observing children watching the show, they realised that children were selective in what they paid attention to. Whether that be toys on the floor or what was shown on the TV.
Despite this, it didn’t impact what the children learnt from the show, the quality of the show did. The tests showed that children could briefly pay attention to an educational scene, but still remember the lesson.
This differs from how adults watch TV, which is to be entertained. Children paid attention to TV in order to learn. Using these results the creators engineered the show so that it featured a mix of real and fantasy characters intended to keep a child’s attention focused on the show.
The original idea of creating a show with fantasy and human character separate did not capture the imagination of the children and was discarded. Leaving the format we all recognise today as Sesame Street.
The Tipping Point review
When I first read The Tipping Point, I enjoyed it. the book was eye-opening and introduced me to several concepts that I was unsure of.
Certainly from a marketer’s perspective, the book offers some invaluable information. It’s a goldmine for tactics and what makes ideas stick and catch on.
However, there is an area of the book that falls down and that’s in regards to some of the social science theories put forward. One of which is the Broken windows theory.
It states that broken windows in one area will lead to more and more windows being broken before the area falls into disrepute with drug dealers and squatters moving into these derelict houses.
Sounds plausible right? Well after reading Rutger Bregman’s Humankind, not so much. He presents evidence that shows this theory isn’t what it’s cracked up to be and that is based on false assumptions and a flawed study.
This kind of spoils the book for me. It’s easy to be taken in by Gladwell’s writing, as he is an impressive writer, but it appears he isn’t the most diligent when it comes to research.
This isn’t the only book where he presents a theory as fact. In Outliers, he presents the 10,000-hour rule, which states that you need to complete 10,000 hours of practice in something to master it.
Again, this sounds plausible, but recent evidence has cast doubt on this theory. In Range, the writer David Epstein presents numerous examples of sports superstars, such as Roger Federer, who succeeded in spite of this rule.
Federer played multiple sports before he focused on tennis during his teenage years. That experience helped him instead of hindering him when it came to his career in tennis considering his achievements.
The Tipping Point is an interesting book and a good read, but I have my doubts on how reliable Gladwell’s assertions are and how watertight his research was when he wrote the book.
Give this book a read, but don’t take everything you read as gospel.
Who should read The Tipping Point?
Anyone who is any way involved with marketing will get a lot out of this book. Putting aside Gladwell’s questionable research, the marketing points in this book are very valuable.
They will provide you with some good case studies which you can learn from and tips that you can put into action.
If you want a read that will make you think and isn’t too difficult, this is a good book. Just don’t take everything at face value!