Is There A Formula For “Virality”?


Ever use a great product or service that inexplicably fails to catch on and is soon discontinued…and you wonder what in the world went wrong?

Welcome to the world of “virality” – where that thing you thought was the best thing since sliced bread falls off the market with barely a whimper. And something that should never have existed sells 25 million copies and its  founder retires to St. Thomas in 6 months. 

So what does make something go “viral”?

Wharton Marketing Professor Jonah Berger has a book out about that called “Contagious”. Since I haven’t read the book yet – and probably won’t for a while – here are some excerpts from an interview with him on Knowledge@Wharton that might serve as a short-term substitute (if you’re going to find yourself in the same boat as me).

1. The science:

Knowledge@Wharton: In the book, you actually outline a framework of six principles for why things catch on, using the STEPPS acronym. Can you describe those for us and discuss how you developed them?

Berger: The books talks about the six key steps to drive people to talk and share. STEPPS is an acronym for:

  • Social currency:, It’s all about people talking about things to make themselves look good, rather than bad
  • Triggers, which is all about the idea of “top of mind, tip of tongue.” We talk about things that are on the top of our heads.
  • Ease for emotion: When we care, we share. The more we care about a piece of information or the more we’re feeling physiologically aroused, the more likely we pass something on.
  • Public: When we can see other people doing something, we’re more likely to imitate it.
  • Practical value: Basically, it’s the idea of news you can use. We share information to help others, to make them better off.
  • Stories, or how we share things that are often wrapped up in stories or narratives.

2. And, here’s an interesting example about everyone’s favorite amazing-product-and-brilliant-marketing company Apple:

Think about Apple’s headphones. It used to be that we all carried portable CD players. It was like carrying a pizza. You had to run like this, to make sure it didn’t skip. Then, they came out with these things called mp3 players. Really great technology, but they were super expensive. Is it worth adopting this new product? How do I know if it’s worth adopting this new product? If you looked around on the subway or the bus, you couldn’t tell [which products people were using] because everyone’s headphones were black. It was impossible to see what device someone was using, as opposed to another device.

But what Apple did really smartly is they used white headphones. Once you start seeing a number of people wearing white headphones, you say, “Wow. A lot of people are using this. It must be really good,” which encourages you to adopt that product as well. It’s just like if you’ve gone to a foreign city and you don’t know where to eat. How you decide? You look for a restaurant that’s full of people. It’s a totally offline example. But you assume if it’s full of people, it must be really good. Thinking about how to make the private public, particularly in an offline environment, is a great way to help your product catch on.

Find the full article here. When you get there, if you have 16 minutes, watch the video – or skip it and scroll down to the transcript. 

Chipotle’s Scarecrow Commercial – Brilliant Advertising

Chipotle’s “fast casual” restaurant niche is slowly but surely getting crowded. Potbelly, Noodles and Company, Chickpea (my favorite, in the NYC metro area), etc.

So how does it differentiate itself?

Among other things, by serving humanely raised, free-range, antibiotic free meat. But how to get the message across?

Enter a game for Apple devices and a brilliant YouTube video that promotes Chipotle without seeming to blatantly do so. Nothing wrong with that, of course. As one of my marketing professors said, marketing works best when the target doesn’t feel marketed to…

For your enjoyment, here’s the commercial: 

Great production values, subtle yet powerful, emotionally appealing and memorable = Differentiation = Brand equity = Stickier consumer relationship.


Apple’s Clever Charger “Take Back” Program

Apple just announced a charger buy-back program, ostensibly following news that a Chinese woman had died after a spurious charger electrocuted her: 

Starting August 16, 2013, if you have concerns about any of your USB power adapters, you can drop them off at an Apple Retail Store or at an Apple Authorized Service Provider. We will ensure that these adapters are disposed of in an environmentally friendly way.

If you need a replacement adapter to charge your iPhone, iPad, or iPod, we recommend getting an Apple USB power adapter. For a limited time, you can purchase one Apple USB power adapter at a special price — $10 USD or approximate equivalent in local currency. To qualify, you must turn in at least one USB power adapter and bring your iPhone, iPad, or iPod to an Apple Retail Store or participating Apple Authorized Service Provider for serial number validation. The special pricing on Apple USB power adapters is limited to one adapter for each iPhone, iPad, and iPod you own and is valid until October 18, 2013.

Adam Pasick, at Quartz, is impressed with Apple’s thinking behind this offer:

Why is this such a genius move?


In a single stroke, Apple has inoculated itself from blame if any further third-party chargers disastrously melt down—as the shoddy, cheaply manufactured fakes are prone to do. If it had chosen to do nothing, it would have eventually faced some uncomfortable questions, like: “How many more people have to die because Apple sells overpriced chargers?”


By offering to take back any and all third-party chargers, even those made by legitimate accessories companies like Belkin and Griffin, Apple is cementing its own super-premium-priced chargers as the gold standard. Even at 50% off, it may still be making a profit. Blogger Ken Shirriff, who has done extensive analysis of iPhone chargers both fake and real, has noted that the components in Apple’s high-quality chargers only cost about a dollar more to manufacture than Samsung’s charger, which retails for $6 to $10.

And let’s not forget that Apple’s take-back program will generate a surge of extra foot traffic to Apple Stores, where users trading in their chargers may well decide to buy a new iPhone case, an Apple TV, or what the heck, maybe a fully-loaded MacBook Pro. The company collected $57.60 in revenue per Apple Store visitor in the first quarter, according to Asymco analyst Horace Dediu.

Makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it?

Grading #RoyalBaby Ads on Twitter

AdAge has an article that grades different #RoyalBaby related Ads on Twitter. 

They opine, and I have to agree, that this was the best one:

Every parent agrees with the “little price or princess” bit, it was timely and likely makes parents feel good about Pampers…(though there’s no call to action, at least in the Tweet/Ad itself).

Oreo, or Oreo’s parent Kraft also had a funny, timely, relevant Tweet/Ad, once again, building on its past successes on Twitter. 

Read the rest of the article for others that clicked(!) and others that were just head-scratchers!


Why Does A Chicago Grocery Chain Want To Eliminate Loyalty Cards?

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As the cognoscenti know, stores of every kind use loyalty cards to gather valuable data on consumer behavior and shopping patterns. In return, customers are rewarded with special offers, discounts, coupons, etc. 

So why is Jewel-Osco, a Chicagoland-based grocery dumping its loyalty card program? And it’s not just Jewel but its sister chains too. 

Pradeep Chintagunta, a Professor of Marketing at the University of Chicago, Booth School of Business posits four explanations, two of which are excerpted below: 

One possible reason could be simply to change perceptions. Walmart has been waging an aggressive advertising campaign against Jewel; the ad shows how much a customer would save by shopping at Walmart vis-à-vis shopping at Jewel (click here to see this ad in the Chicago Tribune). By discontinuing the loyalty card and proclaiming that “all customers deserve low prices,” Jewel might be attempting to change perceptions without actually changing prices or its pricing strategy. After all, most customers got the loyalty card prices anyway. In other words, consumers might now perceive prices to be lower, even if Jewel ran the same promotions before and gave consumers the same discounts.

A second possibility is that Jewel has figured out another way to access the same information. If a majority of the bigger-ticket baskets are paid for using credit or debit cards, Jewel may be able to extract information on purchases by obtaining the corresponding data from the card companies. Collating all purchases of a household at the Jewel store would produce data very similar to the corresponding data from the loyalty card. Another possible benefit of these data is that Jewel may be able to get a measure of its “share of wallet” – how much its customers are spending at Jewel relative to their spending at other grocery stores. This information is not available with store-specific loyalty cards and may therefore be more useful.

You can read the rest of the Tumblr post here

PS: The link in the 2nd paragraph of this post takes you to a Time article by Brad Tuttle (I recommend you follow him on Twitter here) that mentions chains like Whole Foods and Aldi’s competing very successfully with their peers without ever having a loyalty program. True…but those also serve a more premium customer segment that probably can’t be bothered to scan a loyalty card in the checkout aisle, no?

Nestle’s Resource: Differentiation Via Electrolytenment

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Bottled water is one of those things that you want and need when you travel. At all other times, tap water is almost always just as good, at least in the developed world.

Given that, how do you introduce yet another brand and differentiate yourself to the point that consumers are willing to pay more, on a per gallon basis, for your “still” water, than they would, for gas?

You endow it with “Electrolytenment”, despite this: 

As for promoting electrolytes, David G. Schardt, a senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, noted that Resource stopped short of explicitly claiming they benefit health.

“They’re trying to stay away from F.D.A. interference but it also allows them to leave it up to the consumer to imagine the benefits that might come from electrolytes,” Mr. Schardt said.

With the exception of distilled water, all water contains some naturally occurring electrolytes like sodium and potassium, he said, adding that the added electrolytes in sports drinks are necessary only for extreme exertion.

“Replacing your electrolytes is only an issue for endurance athletes sweating for hours, not a jogger going out for a half-hour,” Mr. Schardt said.

Andrew Adam Newman writes elsewhere in the article I excerpted that snippet from that the only concrete positive about Resource is that the bottles are made with 50% recycled plastic. Which is great and I wish that all other plastic bottle makers emulate them or do better.

But still (an unintended pun), tap water uses no plastic at all, yes?

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