Richard Murray : Tipped to reach the top

I immersed myself in the world of tipping recently – nothing to do with horses, but everything to do with the new world of branding. Malcolm Gladwell, a New Yorker magazine columnist, has written a book exploring and analysing that magic moment when ideas, trends and social behaviour cross a threshold, tip and spread like wildfire. The Tipping Point is a must-read for anyone involved in communications.

Gladwell relates case studies supporting the underlying theory that tipping the scales of popularity is as much about the skills of good communication and the crafting of memorable messages, as it is about direct action. While advertising used to rely on sophisticated wordplay to tip the prejudices of the purchasing public, Gladwell argues, “traditional advertising has become less important than word of mouth”.

“Connectors” feature heavily in the book – that often elusive sector of society who are impressed enough by a brand or service to spread your story. Some brands have benefited from connector-driven success by default, but recently successes have been wrought by playing to a limited connector audience, letting those people spread the word.

As an example, Gladwell cites a case study centring on the revived fortunes of Hush Puppies. By the end of 1994, sales of the lightweight shoes were at an all-time low, just 30 000 pairs a year. Wolverine considered phasing out the brand which made it famous. Then something odd happened. At a fashion shoot in New York, two Hush Puppy executives got into conversation with a stylist who said the brand had become hip in the clubs and bars of downtown Manhattan. Trend-setters were descending on “Ma and Pa” shops, in the hope of rooting out a few pairs of what were becoming cult club shoes.

Suddenly, fashion designer Anna Sui requested the shoes for her catwalk show and Hush Puppies boutiques began to start up in major US cities. By the end of 1995, the company had sold 430 000 pairs; the following year it had sold five times that. The brand had now reached its “tipping point” – defined by Gladwell as the possibility of sudden change. The owners of Hush Puppies, while they accepted the plaudits, had nothing to do with the brand’s new-found popularity. It was all down to a handful of clubbers and perceived trend-setters in SoHo and the East Village.

The most sobering case study related by Gladwell focuses on the success and demise of Airwalk. When two entrepreneurs decided in the mid-1980s to manufacture athletic shoes for hardcore skateboarders, they called the company Airwalk, after a classic skateboarding move.

Based in San Diego and rooted in the region’s teenage beach and skate culture, the company made a canvas shoe in wild colours and prints which became an alternative fashion statement. Airwalk shoes were cool and developed a cult following.

After a few years the company decided it wanted to grow beyond cult. It appointed a small ad agency with a big creative reputation called Lambesis, to rethink its marketing. Lambesis came up with an inspired advertising campaign, based on dramatic photographs showing the Airwalk wearer relating to his shoes in a weird way.

While visually ahead of its time, the ad campaign was innovative for more reasons than that. Lambesis had purposely created a brand epidemic, through a campaign which assimilated and translated the cutting-edge ideas of youth culture to make them acceptable to the majority. Lambesis developed a network of young, savvy correspondents from key cities – whom they branded as “Cinnovators” – the kind of kids who’d have worn Hush Puppies in the early 1990s.

It all went swimmingly, and Airwalk sales were colossal by 1996. But the next year sales faltered. Why? We are back to the old parable of forgetting the roots of your success. While Airwalk had continued to create a dedicated small range for specialist skateboarding shops, in 1997 it made those ranges available to mainstream outlets, such as Foot Locker. The “cool” connectors decided Airwalk no longer had a caché. The rumour spread and became reality within a year. Airwalks weren’t cool anymore. They’d sold out. But who knows, maybe in 2016, some trend-setting kids from Moscow might dig out a few pairs of Airwalk and start a new revolution.

What makes The Tipping Point so relevant to our lives as design consultants is that it highlights that we should never ignore people power when determining how a brand performs – brands sometimes have a life of their own, and long may that last.

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