The most recent Fast Company features an interesting article that challenges the ideas brought forth in Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point. Despite the overwhelming following the book has enjoyed since it was published, Duncan Watts, a network-theory scientist now working for Yahoo, argues that it's not just the mavens, salesmen and connectors who start trends: anyone can.
To prove the point, Watts spent years running tests that prove "influential" people have no more likelihood to start a trend than anyone else does. Much like many of Gladwell's reported tests, these seem just as valid. I won't recap them in detail but they involved testing 10,000 people and, using controlled environments, how ideas were spread among them. In the end, the "influentials" didn't stand out as carrying much more power than the non-influentials. Very interesting indeed.
The article was actually kind of aggressive and Watts came across as really attacking Gladwell's theory. In response Gladwell said: "I think that all books like The Tipping Point or articles by academics can ever do is uncover a little piece of the bigger picture, and one day--when we put all those pieces together--maybe we'll have a shot at the truth." Classy and correct.
I think they're both right.
I go back to this a lot: there is no silver bullet. Everyone wants there to be one. But there isn't. Finding the correct answer takes blending things together--which takes more work and less ego. And we don't like more work and we're sensitive to our egos. But that's what it takes. This isn't just true in marketing theory, but life as well.
Take the Watts theory. To articulate the difference of his approach to Gladwell's, he says the spreading of trends isn't like a disease, as so often is discussed. It's more like forest fires: There are thousands a year, but only a few become roaring monsters. This is why anyone can start a trend. It may not be how persuasive the early adopter is, but whether if everyone else is easily persuaded. Therefore, if society is ready to embrace a trend then the pine needles are dry and ready to ignite.
That's really smart and makes sense. And it explains things like the grass roots popularity of Scion and Jet Blue. Society needed these things. We were ready for a customizable, affordable car and a cool discount airline. It didn't require a maven or a connector to spread the word--a large collection of varying consumers was all that was necessary. And because the area was so fertile, everyone's degree of influence was more consistent.
What society doesn't need is another brand of hip, urban sneakers (like how Hush Puppies were positioned in The Tipping Point). We don't need Nixon watches. Or Fiji water. And because we don't need these things, any ol' person can't make it catch on. I think this is where the Law of the Few comes in. We each aspire for different things. We latch on to subjective uniqueness that's attractive to us. This can't be explained. And we all look to different people to show us the cool, the new and the innovative. And isn't it great when someone we admire shows us a Nixon watch and we realize how cool it is.
Marketing and Advertising are subjective industries. Just like the attack on Gladwell, as a profession, we tend to be so black and white. Instead of trying to attack the norm when we find new ideas, let's see how we can refine current thinking and blend everything together. I think we'll all be better for it.