I just finished a fantastic book by New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell called “The Tipping Point.”
The premise of the book is that social epidemics have a tipping point, a moment where they go from marginal obscurity to intense popularity. The book uses examples like Hush Puppies, AIDS, and smoking but I think there’s definitely a correlation to food.
Take for example, Starbucks. How did the idea of expensive gourmet coffee drinks “tip” to the point of such intense popularity? There was a time, believe it or not, where the word “cappucino” had no cultural relevance; asking for frothy milk at a truck stop in Tuscon would likely get you a black eye.
Yet somehow the fancy coffee drink phenomenon tipped. How?
Gladwell suggests three main reasons (that encompass several chapters in the book): 1. The Law of the Few; 2. The Stickiness Factor; and 3. The Power of Context.
The first–“The Law of the Few”–describes three types of people: Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen. Connectors are people who know everyone. They’re not social butterflies; they’re social Mothras. And through their vast social network, Connectors have the ability to spread an idea across continents. The idea of “Six Degrees of Separation” relies heavily on Connectors: if it weren’t for Connectors, you wouldn’t be traceable to Kevin Bacon. So Connectors spread ideas through their vast social networks.
Mavens find ideas. These are the computer geeks, the technology nerds who obsess over every little gadget, ever minute detail of your Palm Pilot Version 8.902832. Mavens are useful for tracking the things we don’t. And somewhere along the way, a coffee Maven sniffed himself a cappucino and found it a refreshing way to start the day. Maybe he even sampled the first ever Frappuchino in a warehouse in Anchorage. In any case, a Maven sniffs things out, passionately spreading the word to Connectors. The Connectors–using their vast social network–spread it far and wide.
That leaves the third group. Gladwell explains: “In a social epidemic, Mavens are data banks. They provide the message. Connectors are social glue: they spread it. But there is also a select group of people–Salesmen–with the skills to persuade us when we are unconvinced of what we are hearing, and they are as critical to the tipping of word-of-mouth epidmeics as the other two groups” (70).
Think about your first trek into Starbucks. What made you try it? Was it the green and white color scheme? The lusty mermaid on the graphic? Did you crave frothy milk in Tuscon?
Most likely, someone you know said: “You have to try this! It’s called a frappuchino! It’s delicious!”
I remember my brother and I doing that very thing to our mother not so long ago. “A frappawhatto?” she asked. But then she caught the vibe and was hooked. I’m sure it happened the same way for many others.
The second main factor–Stickiness–describes the content of the message. It’s all well and good to have Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen but without a “sticky” message, it doesn’t matter who’s spreading it: it won’t stay.
Gladwell writes: “The specific quality that a message needs to be successful is the quality of ‘stickiness.’ Is the message–or the food, or the movie, or the product–memorable? Is it so memorable, in fact, that it can create change, that it can spur someone to action?” (92).
Starbucks drinks are masterpieces of stickiness. First of all, they’re addictive. Caffeine is a drug, and as people develop dependencies on their Starbucks drinks the better the chances they’ll “stick” in their brains. Cigarettes work in a similar way. Secondly, though, the drinks are sweet enough to be decadent yet bitter enough to be subtle. It’s not like drinking candy in the morning, but almost. So you crave the flavor, but also the effect: it’s a double whammy. Starbucks drinks are sticky.
Thirdly (and finally), Gladwell discusses the power of context. This was the part of the book I found most fascinating. Here, Gladwell explores the gigantic drop in crime in NYC in the early nineties. While many attribute this to a giant “crack down” by the police, the truth is rather surprising. Instead of boldly sweeping hardcore criminals off the streets, the city government focused on the subway. At that time, subways were coated, floor to ceiling, with graffiti. And turnstyle jumpers–a familiar motif in many a New York City film–were rampant.
The crackdown entailed cleaning the subways so they sparkled, and rounding up turnstyle jumpers for arrest. The idea was that if you change the context of the subway–if you show that you care about the little things–the bigger things (robbery, rape, murder) won’t happen. And sure enough it worked. The crime rate in New York plummeted.
According to Gladwell: “From a high in 1990, the crime rate went into a precipitous decline. Murders dropped by two-thirds. Felonies were cut in half. Other cities saw their crime drop in the same period. But in no place did the level of violence fall farther or faster. On the subways, by the end of the decade, there were 75 percent fewer felonies than there had been at the decade’s start” (137).
Clearly, context matters. And if you want to apply the theory to Starbucks, you have to look at the economic boon that happened in the early 90s when Starbucks began its climb to mega-popularity. Before then–when the economy was recessed–it would seem absurd to spend $4.00 on a caramel macchiato.
Also, though, you might look at other social influences. Seattle grunge rock, by way of Nirvana, suddenly made coffee culture very cool. Television shows like “Friends” reflected this with characters congregating in Starbucks-like environments. Of course, I’m spinning this argument out of thin air–I haven’t completely thought it through–but it seems to make sense.
And, surely, it applies to all the other food phenomena we’ve witnessed in our lifetimes. The rise of sushi. The death of carbs. The frightening popularity of Emeril Lagasse.
If any of this piques your interest, I can’t recommend “The Tipping Point” enough. The way Gladwell structures his argument; the way he weaves in disparate elements like Paul Revere’s ride and Nickelodeon’s Blues Clues is inspiring. The book is a fascinating, incredibly quick read. Let me be your Maven-Salesman-Connector: go read it!