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By now most of us making a living in media should fully appreciate The Law of the Few.  Yet on a given day when radio and TV ratings are released, the cycle begins anew.  Our  minds veer off into the land of numbers and we want to think in terms of large aggregate totals.  Nielsen for TV, Arbitron for Radio; it’s all the same.  In the end, a very small number determines the destiny of revenue and the people responsible for producing it.  In order to make sense of the nonsensical we need to extend far beyond our constricted specialty; from car sales to PTA attendance, there is more at work than meets the eye.  It’s sort of an unseen, unplanned version of baseball’s “small ball”.

For the myriad of books and articles about why things happen based on  numeric data, no one in our time seems to have a better handle on the subject than Malcolm Gladwell.  If you haven’t read “Tipping Point”, here is a rich plum pudding account of how and why things happen and, at the core of it all, small numbers leading to unscripted big outcomes.

One of our firm’s office locations is in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan.  This diverse, attractive and thriving city defies the law of gravity as regards much of the upper Midwest.  Hush Puppies, the classic American brushed suede shoe company’s suburban headquarters is only a few miles away.  The company’s miracle moment of resurgence occurred in 1995.  Primarily targeted to backwoods outlets and small town family stores, Hush Puppy saw their global sales decline to 30,000 pairs a year.  Parent company, Wolverine Worldwide was on the brink of extinguishing the brand that had made them famous.  But, just then something surreal occurred.  Something which caused Malcolm Gladwell to devote a chapter of “Tipping Point” to the improbable saga:

At a fashion shoot, company executives Owen Baxter and Geoffrey Lewis ran into a stylist from New York who stunned them with the news that the classic Hush Puppies had suddenly become hip in the clubs and bars of Downtown Manhattan.  Concurrently Baxter says kids were raiding resale shops in The Village in Soho.  People were going to Ma and Pa stores where the shoes were still being carried buying them up at a frantic pace.  Baxter and Lewis were in disbelief.  It made no sense that an out of fashion product in decline was suddenly” the rage” in New York.  They were also told that Isaac Mizrahi was wearing the shoes himself.  Baxter and Lewis didn’t know who Isaac Mizrahi was….Things begin to happen in a blur of sequence:  designer John Bartlett called wanting to use Hush Puppies for his spring collection.  The Manhattan designer Anna Sui wanted shoes for her show, while across the country in Los Angeles, Joel Fitzgerald put a 25 foot inflatable Basset Hound (The Hush Puppy Mascot) atop his store.  While he was gutting an adjoining art gallery, turning it into a Hush Puppies Store, Pee Wee Herman dropped in to buy a pair.  “It was total word of mouth” said Fitzgerald.

In 1995, 430,000 pair of Hush Puppies were sold.  The following year, Hush Puppy sold four times that number!  In 1996 Hush Puppy won the prize for “best accessory” at the Council of Fashion Designers awards event at Lincoln Center.  Baxter and Owen took the stage flanked by Calvin Klein and Donna Karan.  Baxter was the first to admit that his company had little to do with the newfound success.

How did this happen?  Those first few kids, whomever they were, had no intent to promote Hush Puppy Shoes. “They were wearing them precisely because no one else would,” says Gladwell.  The fad spread to two fashion designers who used the shoes to promote something else; haute couture.  Somehow the viral resurgence of a brand given up for dead passed a certain point and they “tipped.”  Understanding the world of “viral epidemics” whch can rise and fall on one dramatic moment may be a key to altering the trend of anything. It’s  THE LAW OF THE FEW.

Tim Moore/Audience Development Group