Why do some products become cult hits?

BUSINESS CLASSIC: Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point explores the causes of overnight success.

by Stefan Stern
Last Updated: 13 Mar 2017

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
Malcolm Gladwell
Little Brown, 2000

Why do crazes and consumer fads suddenly erupt, earning bucketloads of cash for the lucky instigator of said frenzy? If only we knew that, we would be rich - well, some of us might be, anyway.

Perhaps that thought lay behind the huge success of Malcolm Gladwell's first book. A contributor to the New Yorker magazine, Gladwell dusted off some academic papers into group psychology and behaviour to explain why certain products - Hush Puppies shoes, the Sesame Street TV show, and many others - acquire cult status and popularity.

Gladwell found that certain types of individuals seemed to have a disproportionately large influence on the response of masses of people. These types were either 'connectors' or 'mavens' (gurus) or 'salesmen', who in their own way would spread the word and create a kind of 'social epidemic'.

Products or phenomena would become 'sticky'. And, as if by magic, a 'tipping point' would be reached, followed by a gush of group activity. Critics have tried to show how Gladwell's claims may be a bit overblown. And no one has found a way of predicting when a tipping point might occur, just as you never know when a video clip may 'go viral'.

But the book proved a tipping point for its author, anyway, elevating him into the megabucks league of top public speakers. The theory worked for him at least.

Stefan Stern is visiting professor at Cass Business School. 

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