Contagious: Why Things Catch On

By Jonah Berger

 

SYNOPSIS

Over the years business leaders from all sectors have wondered why some products and services have become popular with consumers, while others seem to fade along the sidelines. Three important factors play a role in whether or not something stands the chance of "making it." They include price, availability, and quality. But while together, and sometimes even separately, those elements make a difference, the number one reason behind a successful campaign is something known as "Social Transmission." Experts agree that nothing can ever beat the tried and true success of a "word of mouth" campaign. Also, since the introduction of social media to the mix and the excitement of millions of people who cannot wait to "like and share," good news travels fast. Through this book, the author shares his extensive research on the topic and teaches the reader how to launch their successful campaign.

 

SUMMARY

Over the past few decades there have been plenty of examples of new products and movements that were created and introduced to the consumer with results that surpassed any predictions or expectations. Consider these examples:

  • Nonfat Greek Yogurt
  • Smoking Bans
  • Diet Fads, including Atkins, South Beach and the Low Carb ones
  • Rubik’s Cube
  • Crowd sourcing
  • Six Sigma Management Strategies
  • Netflix

Moreover, it is not limited to just major products or movements that have gained worldwide attention. Consider what takes place on a smaller scale in a local community. A newspaper will run a feature article about a new gym that has just opened, or campaign to save a local nonprofit from closing their doors. Suddenly the gym becomes "the" place to work out, and donations start pouring in to keep the charity from going under. Those are great examples of social movements that quickly spread among a local community and population.  Of course, it is easy to review examples of social campaigns that were successful. However, business leaders will no doubt agree that it is much harder to get something to start to "catch on." Sometimes it does not matter how much money managers spend on marketing and advertising; a campaign still might fail to gather interest and support from the consumer or community.

 

Why do some products, ideas, and behaviors succeed when others fail? 

Quality — They are actually better. People tend to steer towards products, services, and movements that are easy to use, have great results and give them a good feeling. If a widget comes along that offers something better than what consumers were using in the past; people will be quick to switch and feel good about their decision. Consider the case of the old fashioned computer monitors and television sets. Remember how bulky and cumbersome they were? Once the newer flat screens were introduced, consumers realized just how easier (and lighter) they were, and they practically sold themselves.

Price — Pricing does matter. It is no big surprise that people would much rather pay a lower price than a higher one. So, in the case of two very similar products that offer the same benefits, odds are very good that the less expensive one will win out. Think about a supermarket that suddenly offers a major brand at half off. Those products quickly fly off the shelves.

Marketing — Advertising plays an important part. Research shows that the average consumer wants and needs to know about a product or service before they will spend their hard earned money to purchase it. However, many businesses think all they have to do is pour a boatload of money into an advertising campaign and it will be successful. Sometimes that is an uphill battle and does not work. For example, if you are trying to sell broccoli, don’t just spend money advertising it. Instead, invest in a series of ads that will teach the consumer the benefits of eating more vegetables, and you stand a greater chance of success.

 

Case Study: The $100 Cheese Steak

With lots of hospitality experience under his belt, when Howard Wein moved to Philadelphia in the spring of 2004, he had his own successful resume that was the envy of many people. With his MBA in hotel management, he had created a successful campaign for Starwood Hotels and their W brand. And as their Corporate Director of Food and Beverage, Howard had managed billions of dollars in revenue. However, while he had enjoyed that time of his life, he was ready to downsize and find something on a smaller scale that would work just as well.  With that in mind, he moved to Philadelphia and helped design Barclay Prime, a new luxury boutique steakhouse.

His idea was a simple one, and one that offered a unique dining experience for the customer. Wein set a goal of delivering the best steakhouse experience on the planet. Although the restaurant was in the smallest section of downtown Philadelphia, it did not take long before customers found it and were glad they did. When people entered the establishment, instead of the traditional tables and chairs, they found plush, comfortable sofas set around small marble tables. The menu included the finest Russian caviar, along with such delicacies like truffle-whipped potatoes and halibut that was shipped nightly from Alaska. But he also knew that just offering a different atmosphere and great food was not going to be enough to keep the business open and thriving. Wein knew that a quarter of new restaurants ended up closing their doors within a year of opening, and he did not want that to happen to him. While Philadelphia already had their share of fine-dining establishments and expensive steakhouses, he knew he had to do something different that would help him stand out from the crowd. Something that would be unique to his brand, something that would get people talking about it and help spread the word about their experience.

 

That is when he created the $100 cheese steak.

 

In a city that was known for their Philly brand cheese steak that normally sold for anywhere from four to seven dollars, the thought of offering a sandwich at that price was absurd. After all, if dozens of sandwich shops, pizzerias and other restaurants sold cheese steaks at such low prices, how could he possibly expect anyone to want to plunk down one hundred dollars for the same sandwich?

The answer was simple: instead of offering the standard steak chopped on a griddle with cheese and onions smothered on top of it, create the buzz by offering a much better brand of thinly sliced Kobe beef and upgrade the “fixings” that would convince people they were getting something worthy of that hundred dollar price tag. So, instead of the standard hoagie roll, customers received a house made brioche role slightly brushed with a special homemade mustard. Instead of the standard friend onions, customers received caramelized onions. Add some triple-cream Taleggio cheese, thinly shaved heirloom tomatoes and top it off with shaved hand-harvested black truffles, and you have a winning combination that will get customers to sit and take notice. While that alone was worthy of being called “different and newsworthy,” Wein also included a butter-poached Maine lobster tail and some chilled Veuve Clicquot champagne.

The end result was astonishing. As soon as the first few dozen customers enjoyed their hundred dollar cheese steak, not only did they leave the restaurant with a full stomach and a smile on their face, they could not wait to tell their family and friends about the experience. That began the “buzz that changed the world” and put his hundred dollar cheese steak on the map. Wein had successfully taken a simple sandwich, added a few upgrades and made the dining experience a unique and different one. He did not just create another cheese steak. Instead, he created a conversation piece!

The hundred dollar cheese steak suddenly was a newsworthy story.  Media outlets, including USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and dozens of others published articles about the sandwich and the restaurant. Even television joined in the media frenzy when The Discovery Channel decided to film a segment for their Best Food Ever show. When celebrities visited Philadelphia, many insisted they visit the restaurant and learn what the excitement was all about. Even late night TV got in on the action when David Letterman invited Barclay’s executive chef to come on the show and cook him one right on the air. Against all odds, Wein was able to successfully launch a new restaurant and a new sandwich that created such a buzz and excitement and is now listed among the best steakhouses in Philadelphia.

 

Conclusion

When thinking about launching a new product, service or movement, think carefully about what it will take to create the buzz. What will it take to create the “contagious” factor that can lead to success? What will it take to get people talking and want to help spread the word? With some careful planning and brainstorming, it can happen.