The Tipping Point

“Look at the world around you. It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push – in just the right place – it can be tipped,” writes Malcolm Gladwell at the end of his breakthrough book, The Tipping Point.

It is a great read for retailers who puzzle why their shoppers do one thing and politicians do another. Or why some marketing sticks and some surefire products stall.

Gladwell is a journalist who tells great stories. In this book he talks about the success of Airwalk when the west coast footwear maker grew sales from $16m in 1993 to $175m in 1997. And then bombed.

What went wrong? Gladwell interviewed former president Lee Smith. Airwalk made a critical mistake, he said. “We had a segmentation strategy where the small core skate shops – the 300 boutiques around the country who really created us – had a certain product line that was exclusive to them. And then they stopped doing that.”

[pull_quote_right]This is also a warning to independent retailers about paying attention to what really works in their businesses[/pull_quote_right]

Smith was asked by his category manager what happened and he told him did you ever see Forrest Gump? “Stupid is as stupid does. Well, cool is as cool does. Cool brands treat people well and we didn’t. I had personally promised some of those little shops that we would give them special product, then we changed our minds.

That was the beginning. In that world, it all works on word of mouth. When we became bigger that’s when we should have paid more attention to the details and kept a good buzz going so when people said you guys are selling out…we could have said we don’t. We had this little jewel of a brand and little by little we sold that off into the mainstream and once we had sold it all so what? You buy a pair of our shoes, why would you ever buy another?”

This is the kind of journalism that reflects a thousand stories that independent retailers have told me over the last 20 years. It reflects the daily frustrations of products and services that let them down. But it is also a warning to themselves about paying attention to what really works in their businesses.

People are “actually powerfully influenced by [their] surroundings, [the] immediate context, and the personalities of those around us,” says Gladwell. One of his first stories is about Paul Revere and his famous horse ride to start the American Revolution.

What makes it interesting is that at exactly the same time another Bostonian rode out to warn the colonists. William Dawes took the same message through just as many towns and over just as many miles as Revere but failed to get the local militia to turn out. It is not the news that matters, Gladwell argues, but the person who tells it to us and how they tell us.

His book will give you plenty of ideas on how to strengthen your business and sales pitch.

It also offers an interesting insight into the war on tobacco. It is Gladwell’s view that: “Smoking was never cool. Smokers are cool.” Teenagers smoke not as a result of tobacco company marketing, but because teenagers like to be rebellious and impulsive and risk-taking and indifferent to others opinions.

His views may not change the mind of your MP – but you could still give it a go – but they will help you to see that the simple answer may not be true. “The world does not accord with our intuition.”


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