The Tipping Point

Back in 2000, Malcolm Gladwell’s book was on the desks of every marketer and his insights were on the lips of every sentient human. At least, that’s what I was told when it was handed to me with the admonition that if I didn’t read and memorize everything in it, I’d soon find myself in the natural history museum next to cro-magnons and mastodons as part of a diorama about what marketers looked like in the days “Before Gladwell”

“The Tipping Point” changed the nature of business book writing. Or at the very least, it raised the bar. Because while there are important stories to tell and theories to work out, Gladwell, like the New Yorker essayist he still is, always paints a picture of the people involved and the real worlds they inhabit in a way that is rare in this genre. You never forget, as you often do with other business books, that what we are talking about here are the real actions of real human beings and their real consequences. People, if not just like you and me, at least recognizable from the subway or the street. It is, frankly, the talent of an artist, and only Michael Lewis is his peer. And if that’s not a standard everyone can reach, its certainly one everyone should aim for.

A more cynical person than myself, however, might say that this covers for the fact that “The Tipping Point” isn’t quite as instructional as someone like me was hoping it would be back in 2000. For while it often explains a phenomena, it offers no concrete and tangible guides or templates or suggestions even, for future behaviour. In short, Gladwell says “This is how people are. Queer, isn’t it?”

And if it did not instruct me or other marketers on how to turn our clients’ brands into the next Hush Puppies (no matter how many hipsters we foisted them upon), it’s still a very useful book. His classification of customers into connectors, mavens and salesmen; his discussion of “stickiness”; of context – are all important. And if they were not particularly new to the kinds of folks who study this stuff all the time, Gladwell’s dissemination of them – his role as connector if not maven, as it were – remains valuable.

Because that vocabulary is what’s really central to the importance of “The Tipping Point” – Gladwell’s ability to reframe reality to force us to reconsider some of our prejudices and expectations. Customers are not just customers, whatever their age, geographic, HHI or ethnicity. They are also people who engage with other people in certain ways that affect the choice of goods they purchase. Imagine that.

Now, if you haven’t already read “The Tipping Point” this may all sound somewhat abstract, so let me give you an example.

In 2004, Gladwell gave a talk about pasta sauce at TED in Monterrey. Yes, pasta sauce. Go here, right now: http://www.ted.com/talks/malcolm_gladwell_on_spaghetti_sauce.html

Did you see how the data didn’t make sense because they were looking at it the wrong way, and that when Howard Moscowitz looked at it the right way, it not only made sense, it exploded the market?

That’s why reframing is important. Because everything is changing all the time and we constantly need to be reminded of that fact. You think you’re aware, of course. But you act as if things are more or less as they’ve always been. And there’s a very good reason you think this: it keeps you from going insane. If you really thought every day was a blank slate, the tidal wave of stuff you’d have to process would make your head explode.

So you tell yourself this fiction that things are constant and you walk into a conference room and – BANGO! – someone tells you that sales are down 30% in Region 4 and wants to know what the hell happened. What the hell happened? Well, little by little, things were changing, that’s what the hell happened. The parts of the data in the weekly charts you were getting that weren’t making “sense” were getting slightly larger each week, until what didn’t make sense wasn’t the data, but the way you were organizing it. Because you were framing it wrong.

That’s the value of Gladwell’s book. Not that it will teach you how to predict a tipping point. But to remind you that there is one. Or rather, that there may be a dozen, depending on how you look at the situation.

You just have to always be looking.

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Galdwell was published by Knopf on 05/07/02 – order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller ( find one here).

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