In the early 1990s, a company called Airwalk became wildly successful. The company began selling shoes marketed to skateboarders, but gradually expanded to sell hiking boots, snowboots, and other shoes. Airwalk targeted young buyers, and paid popular musicians large sums to wear Airwalk shoes while performing. Why, exactly, did Airwalk tip? One hypothesis for why Airwalk became a huge success is that its ad agency, Lambesis, came up with a brilliant ad campaign that quickly became recognizably on TV. In order to understand why the ad campaign was so successful, we can look to the different stages in a social epidemic.
The book began with a description of how a certain kind of shoe became successful; here in Chapter Six, Gladwell again returns to shoes. For the remainder of his book, however, Gladwell will study how specific companies and groups tip into popularity, using the three laws he’s described so far.
Studies have analyzed the process of a social epidemic in terms of the different audiences for such an epidemic. There are the Innovators and Early Adopters—the people who are first to try a new idea or product. Then there’s the Early Majority, often consisting of the businesses and establishment groups that try to adopt an idea early on, but without taking a substantial risk. The hipsters who wore Hush Puppies in the mid-90s would constitute the Early Adopters, while the fashion designers who then used Hush Puppies in their ads would represent an Early Majority. The transition from Early Adoption to Early Majority represents the point where most ideas and products fail, and also the point where Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen play their biggest role.
In order to study Airwalk in more detail, Gladwell adds three new terms to the three laws he’s already outlined: Innovators, Early Adopters, and the Early Majority. These three terms reflect the Law of the Few, because they reiterate the point that a few disproportionately influential people can cause a social epidemic. In this case, it is the task of Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen to learn of a new trend from Innovators and Early Adopters, and pass on the information to form an Early Majority. Furthermore, Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen are by definition Early Adopters, since they must first adopt an idea or product before passing it along.
One interesting version of a social epidemic is rumor: a story that gets repeated by many different people. Psychologists have shown that rumors spread by becoming “sticky.” At first, a rumor might contain many pieces of information, but as the story gets spread, it simplifies. Furthermore, the story often “adapts” to the lives of the people who are telling it, so that it makes sense in the context of their own community. In general, the process by which a rumor is spread is similar to the process by which Mavens, Salesmen, and Connectors make an idea popular, and the process by which an idea diffuses from the Early Innovators to the Early Majority. Gladwell calls this process “Translation.”
Gladwell has the three laws, which can be used to analyze social epidemics in three distinct ways. But now that he’s moved on to case studies, he’s studying the process of a social epidemic holistically. In practice, an idea or product must pass from Innovation to Majority in a process called Translation. Gladwell’s point is that Translation doesn’t simply “pass on” an idea or product to other people, as the earlier chapters had suggested: Translation often changes the idea or product, too, in order to make it stickier and more infectious.
A good example of translation came to Baltimore in the 80s, with the introduction of the needle exchange program. At the height of the AIDS crisis, officials proposed that a truck would travel around the city, offering drug addicts clean needles in exchange for dirty ones, no questions asked. After the program was installed, officials realized that a few addicts were bringing in hundreds of needles, exchanging them for clean needles, and then selling the needles on their own. Eventually, officials decided that this was a much better solution to the problem of dirty needles than the government itself could provide: the addicts who were selling clean needles, in Gladwell’s terminology, were Connectors, spreading the new “product” across Baltimore.
This passage is a good example of how ideas and products of all kinds sweep through a community because of the actions of a few influential Connectors. The passage has also prompted disagreement, since it seems to imply that letting drug addicts profit off of other people’s addiction is a “successful” strategy (one could argue that such a program just encourages further drug use and therefore prolongs the drug epidemic).
In a way, Lambesis (the ad agency marketing Airwalk) was trying to perform the same service for American shoe customers that the Baltimore officials were trying to perform for addicts: transmit a new product as quickly and efficiently as possible. Lambesis began researching the shoe market for Airwalk. The company spent a lot of time and money researching new trends around the world, striking up relationships with young “correspondents” in major world cities like New York, London, and Tokyo. These young correspondents were textbook Innovators, and they played a major role in dictating the style and tone of Lambesis’s ad campaign for Airwalk.
Lambesis seems to have used precisely the techniques and rules that Gladwell writes about in this book. Just as Gladwell emphasizes the importance of Innovators and Salesmen in social epidemics, Lambesis tried to “tap into” its innovative correspondents’ tastes and styles in order to persuade customers to buy shoes, effectively trying to “sell” the Salesmen.
Lambesis had a clear strategy while marketing Airwalk shoes: in commercials, the company tried to evoke as many “hot trends” as possible, in the hopes that people who enjoyed those trends would associate Airwalk shoes with the trends. But Lambesis didn’t just repeat these trends—it reshaped, simplified, and “sweetened” the trends in commercial form. For example, Lambesis picked up on a wave of support for Tibet and the Dalai Lama among its young correspondents, so it “translated” the trend into a 30-second commercial about a Tibetan monk wearing Airwalk shoes.
The process by which Lambesis marketed the Airwalk shoe is a little different from some of the other social epidemics Gladwell has discussed. As advertisers, Lambesis executives were trying to start a social epidemic in which Airwalk shoes were the product, but they were also trying to “piggyback” off of other social epidemics—for example, the “trend” of supporting the Dalai Lama. This illustrates an important point: sometimes, one social epidemic can successfully imitate another social epidemic, “infecting” the people who’ve already been infected by another social epidemic. (Characteristically, Gladwell doesn’t talk about the ethics of twisting a political cause like the Tibetan liberation movement into a campaign to sell shoes.)
By 1997, Airwalk sales were faltering, in part because the company failed to keep up with its own Innovators and correspondents. The company was highly popular among “young, cool” people, but gradually, the shoes became so ubiquitous that it was difficult for an Airwalk customer to distinguish herself from the mainstream. Without a steady supply of new Innovators, the company lost its momentum, and sales gradually decreased. In short, the epidemic was over.
Just as Airwalk attained success because it was able to mirror Innovator trends in its ads, it eventually failed because it lost touch with its Innovators. By definition, trends are successful because the idea or product is “trendy”; in other words, because it’s original or unexpected in some way. When a product stops being so original, the trend tends to subside (although, as we saw with Hush Puppies, the trend may reappear years later).