Who would have thought that a frumpy shoe like Hush Puppies would be embraced by fashion designers and New York club goers alike?
But that’s exactly what happened in the mid-1990s. A shoe that was so unpopular that its maker, Wolverine, almost discontinued the line suddenly became the accessory of the moment. Fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi was said to be wearing the shoes at one point. Designers Anna Sui and John Bartlett used the shoes in their runway shows. Even Pee Wee Herman was wearing them.
This frenzy for Hush Puppies grew so much that the company quadrupled its sales in 1996.
One might think that the reason for the dramatic rise in popularity and sales of Hush Puppies was because of an intensive, costly marketing effort by the company. But in truth, a few people who started wearing the shoes in downtown Manhattan clubs sparked the trend.
As it turns out, many huge trends are started just this way — by a few people or a few small changes that cause a population to start acting differently. Such changes are the subject of the new book, The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell.
Gladwell uses examples like the Hush Puppies craze or the drop in New York City’s crime rate to demonstrate his theory of the tipping point, or the moment when an idea, trend or social behavior crosses a certain threshold before it catches on.
In the case of crime in New York City, the tipping point occurred when the New York Transit authority, and later, New York City, adopted a policy known as “Broken Windows.” Simply put, the policy calls for cracking down on little things like graffiti in subways or the “squeegee” men who cleaned people’s car windshields when they were idling in traffic.
The idea is that by giving the illusion of order, citizens start acting in an orderly way. Incredibly, that idea worked for New York.
Gladwell illustrates the tipping point theory in other examples as well. The author proves his point using anecdotal evidence from business, history and entertainment, such as the wild popularity of the children’s show Blue’s Clues or the way Paul Revere’s message spread after the revolutionary made his famous midnight ride to Lexington, Mass.
What makes these things or ideas catch on is often a product of something much smaller than expected, writes Gladwell. His three rules of the tipping point — the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor and the Power of Context — show just how a seemingly insignificant event or person can have a major effect.
The “law of the few,” for instance, shows that, like in the story of Paul Revere, it often takes just one person to start a movement. There are certain people in life who have a talent for bringing people together and disseminating information, and those people are often pivotal to making things happen.
The “stickiness factor” is also critical — if something doesn’t “stick” with people, it will never catch on. The Columbia Record Club urged viewers of its late-night television commercials in the 1970s to look for the little gold box on their order forms in magazines where customers could write in the name of a record and get it for free.
What seemed like an insignificant and almost goofy strategy ended up being more effective for the company than straight television commercials aired during prime time.