The Tipping Point

I was a student when I first encountered Malcolm Gladwell through his book, The Tipping Point. Here, he highlighted how certain events, trends and happenings achieve exponential popularity while others fade and disappear.

The material was released in 2000, the year I graduated in high school. I read it five years after, nearing my college graduation back in 2005. Although his premise and central argument were crystal clear and easy to digest, some were a little mysterious to me. And to some, my faculties were resistant to analysis. But his other ‘Tipping Point’ examples were obviously familiar to me and this generation so it wasn’t too surprising to have found myself nodding to some ‘epidemics.’

A decade after, old copy resurfaced on my mom’s shelf. I took it home and reread it. And I thought, ‘Whoa, how timely!’

I thought it was particularly wise to re-acquaint myself with the concept.

Because: we thrive in an industry where everything spins so fast, you actually have to re-wire and install a ‘foresight’ kind-of chip in you. Otherwise, it’s fight or flight.

Because: knowledge about how small actions at the right time, in the right place, and with the right people is truly crucial in driving products, services and brands.

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Tipping Point is that one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once. In the book, it is a phenomenon that explains the emergence of trends, events, and social behaviors – how they reach a moment of critical mass (AKA threshold, ‘boiling point’, a place where the unexpected becomes expected) and tips, and spreads like wildfire.

Here, Gladwell relates how ideas, products, messages, and behaviors spread just like viruses do.

For example, Hush Puppies ‘tipped’ in 1993, when a few fashion-forward hipsters from Soho New York started wearing the languishing brand again.  This triggered a chain reaction that cascaded though the US, increasing sales 70-fold and creating a word of mouth epidemic.

How did that happen? Those first few kids, whoever they were, weren’t deliberately trying to promote Hush Puppies. They were wearing them precisely because no one else would wear them.

Using the three basic laws of epidemics, Gladwell outlines a simple three-point plan to get things to its own tipping point:

The Law of the Few 
The first rule is The Law of the Few, which states that if one wants to push a practice beyond its tipping point, one need not worry about how many people are exposed to the relevant stimuli, but rather who is exposed. This is based on the 80/20 principle (or the Pareto Principle), the idea that 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people. Gladwell posits that if the right types of individuals contact certain stimuli, then certain practices can spread across many people or vast geographic areas rather quickly.

“The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts,”

There are 3 types of people who will carry out the majority of the work: connectors, mavens, and salesmen.

The Stickiness Factor

The second rule of social epidemics is called The Stickiness Factor. Where The Law of the Few concerns reaching just the right people, The Stickiness Factor can be best summed up as follows: “There is a simple way to package information that, under the right circumstance, can make it irresistible. All you have to do is find it.”

To illustrate, Gladwell calls on Lester Wunderman, an advertising agent who created a highly successful advertising campaign for Columbia Record Club during the 1970s. The campaign involved a set of TV commercials informing the viewing audience that if they could find a gold box on order coupons in TV Guide or Parade magazines, they could send in the coupon and receive any record for free. Wunderman arranged this such that every magazine ad contained the gold box: a simple yet powerful manipulation that rejuvenated the company by making the audience active participants in the advertising.

Simply put, this refers to a unique quality that compels the phenomenon to “stick” in the minds of the public and influence their future behavior. According to Gladwell,

“stickiness means that a message makes an impact and doesn’t go in one ear and out the other.”

Gladwell expounds, “when most of us want to make sure what we say is remembered, we speak with emphasis. We talk loudly, and we repeat what we have to say over and over again. Marketers feel the same way. There is a maxim in advertising business that an advertisement has to be seen at least six times before anyone will remember it.”

The Power of Context

The final rule of social epidemics is called The Power of Context. As the term suggests, he acknowledges the pervasive role of context on behavior and devotes two chapters to this rule alone. One example of The Power of Context involves “the magic number one hundred and fifty,” which seems to be a critical number affecting group phenomena.

This number, according to Gladwell, is also found in the organization of military units, hunter-gatherer societies, and the modern Hutterites. The communities in the latter two examples tend to break off and form separate, smaller, communities when their population approximates 150. The logic follows that if a population approaches 150, the group becomes much harder to manage and begins to lack cohesiveness.

Gladwell also recognises how minor changes in our external environment can have dramatic effect on how we behave and who we are.

Clean up graffiti and all of a sudden people who would otherwise commit crimes suddenly don’t. Tell a seminarian that he has to hurry and all of a sudden he starts to ignore bystanders in obvious distress.


“This says that human beings are a lot more sensitive to their environment than they may seem,” explains Gladwell. “Epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur.”

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In The Tipping Point, Gladwell examines the intricacies of social influence and how it actually happens albeit sometimes, unexpectedly. It serves an in-depth insight about consumer psychology and marketing dynamics. Insightful and lots of “AHA!” moments while reading this.


Title: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

Author: Malcolm Gladwell

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company

Publication Year: 2000

Paperback: ISBN 0-316-67907-0

Current events, world affairs, business, consumer psychology, marketing, advertising

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