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The Tipping Point Summary Essay Tips

The Tipping Point Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of The Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell.

Malcolm Gladwell’s debut non-fiction book, The Tipping Point, analyzes social trends from their beginnings and explores what makes some soar and others wither away. Gladwell received an estimated $1-1.5 million advance to write the book, which was published in 2000 and sold 1.7 million copies by 2006. Using data and real science behind cultural “epidemics”, Gladwell explains that a large number of patterns and factors underlie every trend. Small actions, strategically placed at the correct time and with the correct people, can create a “tipping point” for a product, a domino effect that spreads a product’s popularity like a virus. The book, therefore, has become popular with people in marketing as well as those that work in public health.

Gladwell outlines a three-step plan to propel a product to a tipping point, each using viral epidemics as examples. The first is the Law of the Few. A small number of highly “infectious” people create awareness for a product by either spreading the word or using the product themselves. According to Gladwell, there are three types of such people: mavens, connectors, and salesmen. A maven is a consumer expert whose opinion is well-regarded by people in the maven’s field. Connectors are, rather than experts, exceedingly popular individuals whose magnetic social spheres are a perfect incubator for viral products. Lastly, salesmen are smart, enthusiastic consumers gifted in the art of persuasion. Gladwell’s main example is Paul Revere, who possessed qualities of each of the three types of “infectious” people.

The second part of the plan is called the Stickiness Factor. Both physical and media products must have something naturally ‘infectious’ about them, meaning people want to talk about them. What makes a product relevant, memorable, and worthy of conversation? Gladwell quotes from the Journal of Product Management (2000) which provides ten critical factors that makes a product “sticky:” uniqueness, aesthetics, association, engagement, excellence, expressive value, functional value, nostalgic value, personification, and cost. For this law, Gladwell uses Sesame Street as his primary example. Its relatively small tweak of making the puppets interact with real humans caused the show’s popularity to soar.

Lastly, the spread of an epidemic depends on the local environment. Is the context right for the trend to succeed? Gladwell uses the example of New York City’s campaign against crime in the mid 1990s. Authorities removed graffiti in the city’s subways and more heavily enforced laws against fare-dodging. The environment changed and the crime rate dropped. The theory is that consumers are heavily influenced by their environment and are thus easily persuaded. Using the example of the “broken windows theory,” Gladwell illustrates that broken windows on a street and other forms of vandalism encourage similar behavior until the street is crime ridden and blighted. As for selling products, marketers can use the following six psychological principles of influence to establish the “environment:” scarcity, majority, authority, beauty, reciprocity, and consistency.

The final chapters are thorough investigations of a product or trend’s journey to popularity that illustrate one or more aspects of achieving the tipping point. Rebecca Wells’ novel The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood was especially appealing to book clubs of middle-aged women in Northern California. This population was uniquely positioned to spread the book’s popularity by way of recommendations and verbal advocacy. Airwalk shoes were initially marketed toward the skateboarding subculture, but gained popularity through an effective marketing campaign that colored the shoes as the height of “cool.” The company used Tibetan Buddhism, gang culture, and an ironic embracing of prep culture to associate their shoes with “coolness.” Lastly, Gladwell explores the perpetually high rate of teen smoking in the United States and an alarming adolescent suicide rate among males in Micronesia. These trends, he asserts, are symptomatic of two principles: teenagers are likely to imitate others and try new things and especially poised to indulge in dramatic, romanticized behavior like smoking and suicide. These actions, in turn, are more likely to attract attention from others.

In his conclusion, Gladwell provides one last illustration of the tipping point. A nurse trying to raise breast cancer awareness among African-American women targeted hair salons as the environment in which to spread her message. In such a relaxed context as a hair salon, people are receptive to new information, as opposed to a formal educational setting. While these types of low-key methods are often dismissed as solutions that treat symptoms rather than the problem, Gladwell claims that it’s exactly these types of small, focused actions that over time can build to a tipping point. This illustration encompasses The Tipping Point’s main theme: large-scale trends, whether they be related to health concerns or products, can be similarly traced back to precise, imperceptible events that build momentum over time.


  • The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference
  • Author: Malcolm Gladwell
  • Publisher: Little Brown
  • Publication date:  2000

The Tipping Point has gained something of a cult status in marketing – as the black book of 21st Century Marketing.  But what does Malcolm Gladwell’s influential bestseller actually advocate, and how can it be applied to real world marketing?

The Tipping Point is a book about how hits happen.  Using the science of epidemics, Gladwell shows how small actions at the right time, in the right place, and with the right people can create a ‘tipping point’ for a product – the moment when a domino effect is triggered and an epidemic of demand sweeps through a population like a virulent virus.  For example, Hush Puppies ‘tipped’ in 1993, when a few fashion-forward hipsters from Soho New York started wearing the languishing brand again.  This triggered a chain reaction that cascaded though the US, increasing sales 70-fold and creating a word of mouth epidemic.  Using the three basic laws of epidemics, Gladwell outlines a simple three-point plan to get your product to its own tipping point.

1.  The Law of the Few

An epidemic begins when a few highly infectious individuals become viral vectors for a product or idea by adopting it themselves and spreading the word. Gladwell identifies three key types of infectious opinion leaders with whom you should seed your product at launch:

  • Mavens are opinion leading consumer experts who spread influence by sharing their knowledge with friends and family.  Mavens are gate-keepers of innovation diffusion because their adoption patterns are respected by peers as informed decisions.
  • Connectors are a second type of opinion leading consumer, deriving their influence not through expertise, but by their position as highly connected social network hubs.  As centres of social gravity, around whom people cluster, connectors are popular people who have a viral capacity to showcase and advocate new products.
  • Salesmen are the third type of opinion leading influencer, people with the power of persuasion.  They are naturally charismatic and contagious consumers – who often work in sales – whose enthusiasm rubs off on those around them.

2.  The Stickiness Factor

An epidemic spreads when the contagious agent, the product, is naturally infectious, or ‘sticky’ to use the broadcasting term.  A show is ‘sticky’ when we don’t want to switch channels, and Gladwell gives examples from television and books to show how small tweaks to increase relevance, talk-ability and memorability can have a massive effect on success.  Although he does not address consumer products more generally, the recent meta-analysis of a wide range of cult brands in the Journal of Product Management (2000) shows us the ten critical factors that make any product sticky or infectious:

  • Uniqueness: clear one-of-a-kind differentiation
  • Aesthetics: perceived aesthetic appeal
  • Association: generates positive associations
  • Engagement: fosters emotional involvement
  • Excellence: perceived as best of breed
  • Expressive value: visible sign of user values
  • Functional value: helps goal attainment
  • Nostalgic value: evokes sentimental linkages
  • Personification: has character, personality
  • Cost: perceived value for money

The implication from The Tipping Point is that we should develop products to fit this ‘sticky’ profile, because these are the critical success factors that can have a massive impact on sales.

3. The Power of Context

Finally, the spread of an epidemic will depend on whether the context is right.  Ideas and products that fit the context into which they are launched spread fast and wide, whilst others that don’t fit their context, don’t spread.  For example, a wave of crime in the New York subway was halted by simply removing the graffiti from trains and clamping down on fare-dodging.  The context changed and so did the people.  This power of context provides marketers with a powerful new strategy for the development of new products: Target contexts before you target consumers.  Consumers are contextual chameleons and will adopt your product if it fits the context, situation or occasion in which they find themselves.  It also means that consumers are more highly susceptible to influence at the point of purchase than we might think – underlining the critical importance of Point of Purchase promotions and personal selling. Whilst volume and price promotions will always work well in the purchase context, think about how you could integrate the six psychological principles of influence into promotions and promotional materials.

  • Scarcity: Our minds are hardwired to value scarce resources, so limit availability of the promotion or your product
  • Majority: The herd instinct is very much alive, so use the power of lists to show how your product is no 1, and watch the crowds follow
  • Authority: The brain is automatically predisposed to copying the behaviour of authorities, so show how your product is the preferred choice of category authorities
  • Beauty: We may not like it but we have an automatic reflex to think good looking people make good choices – so associate your product  with the choices of beautiful people
  • Reciprocity: We have evolved to reciprocate favours, so do something for the buyer, and improve your chances of getting bought
  • Consistency: The human mind automatically prefers to be consistent with past choices, so show how your product is consistent with the choices they’ve already made

So there you have it, the three-point Tipping Point plan for creating a hit: “The Law of the Few”, “The Stickiness Factor” and “The Power of Context”.  Does the formula work?  First results are very encouraging with Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Ford, Pepsi, Microsoft, Siemens and Apple all significantly accelerating sales with Tipping Point initiatives.  Already adopted as the 21st century cult book of marketing, The Tipping Point is providing marketers with an exciting new approach to the successful development and launch of innovations.

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