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May 29, 2015 // 8:00 AM

Kale, Podcasts & Yoga Pants: The Secret Formula Behind Ideas That Take Off

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Unsatisfied by his current job, Tom Dickson found himself with three things: the need for a change, a passion for bread making, and a $10 vacuum motor. 

In search of a way to combine them, Dickson started his own blender company, Blendtec. Unfortunately, he quickly found that generating buzz for blenders wasn't all that easy. 

Then one day, his marketing director found inspiration in a pile of sawdust left behind by one of Dickson's "blender durability experiments," and proposed an idea that would soon propel Blendtec to fame. 

The Will it Blend? video series follows Dickson as he tests the power of his product by blending everything from glows sticks to Justin Bieber CDs. Today, the YouTube series boasts an impressive 799,332 subscribers and 259,503,120 views. 

How did this happen? And why?

Quite simply, Blendtec found a way to position their product as something truly fascinating. Something contagious

"The Blendtec story demonstrates one of the key takeaways of contagious content. Virality isn’t born, it’s made. And that is good news indeed," explains Wharton Professor and best-selling author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Jonah Berger. 

In his book, Berger fuses the concepts of virality, social influence, and interpersonal communication with research and stories around what makes an idea not only stick, but also spread. I recently had a chance to catch up with Berger to discuss his book and dive further into his understanding of why people talk about certain products and ideas more than others.

Ever wonder why kale suddenly became impossible to avoid? Or yoga pants? Or podcasts? What's that all about?

According to Berger, the transmission of ideas can be explained by six concepts: social currency, triggers, emotion, public, practical value, and stories. 

STEPPS: The Six Principles of Contagious Ideas

"The key is to understand what grabs people’s attention and why people share. And that’s what the six key STEPPS are all about. Even in today’s crowded marketplace, these principles have helped dozens of companies get their products and ideas to catch on," explains Berger. 

Before we dive into some real-life applications of these principles, it's important to start with a clear understanding of how they are defined:

  1. Social Currency: Social currency taps into our desire to feel like "insiders" and share information that makes us look good. 
  2. Triggers: Triggers remind people to talk about your product or service. This is often achieved by linking what you offer to popular events or cues. 
  3. Emotion: When we care, we share. If you can get people to feel something, the next usual step is for them to share those feelings. 
  4. Public: The more visible and easily accessible your product is, the more likely it is to be talked about. Highly public ideas market themselves. 
  5. Practical Value: People want to share content that teaches others how to do something better -- improve their health, learn a new instrument, save money, etc. 
  6. Stories: Inserting information into a narrative will transform it into something more attractive to share.

So how do these principles help explain the popularity of kale, yoga pants, and podcasts? Read on.

The Kale Campaign

Between 2012-2013, 608 baby Kales were born. No, not the vegetable. We're talking about actual babies named Kale. 592 baby boys and 16 baby girls, to be exact. 

This should come as no surprise after the Department of Agriculture announced that U.S. farmers grew 57% more kale in 2012 than they did in 2007. Or after Whole Foods reported that on average they now sell 22,000 bunches of kale per day. And while we're on the subject, did you know that a recent survey of restaurant menus from 2013-2014 revealed a 47% increase in the word kale? 

Notice a trend developing here?

Kale is really really popular in the U.S.

From Beyoncé music videos to the next iteration of the McDonald's menu, the almighty leafy green has seemingly infiltrated all corners of society. Which leaves us to ponder the question: How the heck did that happen?

The simplest way to explain this veggie phenomenon would be to attribute it to the increase in healthier eating habits amongst Americans. However, we'd argue there's actually more to it than that. 

First, it's important to note that this whole kale thing didn't take off organically (pun very much intended). Truth be told, a few years back, The American Kale Association actually joined forces with Oberon Sinclair, founder of My Young Auntie PR, to propel the superfood into super fame. 

As a result, Sinclair did what any great PR person would do -- she hustled the veggie into the hands of the right people. And in this case, the right people meant people like the guys at Fat Radish, which can be best described as a "trendy, brick-walled cafe with a hip clientele and innovative, vegetable-centric British dishes."

Thanks to their endorsement and a handful of other high-brow mentions -- Martha Stewart's Kale Slaw recipe published in the August 2009 copy of Martha Stewart Living and Gwenyth Paltrow's 2011 kale chip segment on Ellen -- kale quickly made its way into the public eye. 

While this PR boost helped to push the vegetable into the limelight, Berger's principles played a part in helping it maintain its authority.

"From almonds and blueberries to Greek yogurt and kale, people are always looking for the next superfood. Something that has lots of vitamins and nutrients, with no downside. And for the moment, kale has hit that perfectly. It’s the right blend of novel and nutritious that allows people who care to show they are on the next big thing," explains Berger. 

The key phrase here being "novel and nutritious."

It's kale's nutritious, practical benefits that make it shareworthy. People are always looking to share things that help others, so highlighting the health benefits of kale serves as a way for them to do just that. 

Aside from its nutritious practical value, kale has also become somewhat of a novelty. As a result, people are driven to share their kale consumption to prove that they are -- as Berger mentioned -- "on the next big thing." This is a strong representation of social currency in action, as this principle refers to our desire to show off the fact that we are staying on top of the latest trends. 

"The only thing people love more than talking is talking about themselves. Particularly online, much of what we share is driven by how it makes us look. People share pictures of their meals, diets, and workshops to show how healthy, smart, or in the know they are," adds Berger. 

To get a better idea of just how far the social spread of kale has gone, we ran a quick Instagram search for the hashtag #kale and found that the Instagram community alone had shared 1,327,785 kale pictures to date. Kale salads, kale chips, kale smoothies, you name it -- they've slapped a filter on it and shared it with their followers. 

As long as we continue to operate under the notion that "you are what you Instagram," it's likely that this food trend will only continue to grow. 

The Return of the Podcast 

In 2001, Steve Jobs introduced the world to the very first iPod. Serving as an innovative portable music player, the iPod finally gave users the ability to carry their favorite songs and albums around with them.

Soon after its release, "podcasting" -- a genre of narrative audio cleverly named to reflect the listening device -- surfaced and began to catch on. However, somewhere between 2009-2010 the genre began to lose steam. 

Fast-forward to today, and it seems that there is a podcast for almost anything you can think of. So what caused this resurgence in popularity?

For starters, mobile usage is at an all-time high. According to Pew Research Center, 64% of American adults now own a smartphone of some kind. (This number is up from 35% in the spring of 2011.) This makes it easier than ever for listeners to pull up a podcasting app and tune in without the hassle.

Prior to this increase in mobile dependency, keeping up with a podcast meant subscribing to a program, downloading new episodes each week, and manually plugging your iPod or other MP3 player into a computer to sync up the latest. In other words, it was hard work. 

By improving the user flow and lowering the barrier between broadcaster and listener, it's easier for users to incorporate this technology into their daily routines. This is where we can begin to see several of Berger's principles take shape -- specifically practical value, stories, and emotion. 

In terms of practical value, podcasts are unique in that they are both portable and audible, which in turn, makes them useful. As a result, people are driven to share information on podcasts or suggestions for listening to introduce their network to a new way of consumption -- a format that will increase their productivity and help them learn new things. 

"Podcasts are like entertainment snacks. They provide a handy way to consume information on the go. Whether waiting for the subway, or working out on the treadmill, you can listen while you are doing something else," explains Berger. 

Other than the fact that they are valuable in the sense that they fit nicely into our busy routines, the popularity of podcasts most certainly has something to do with their storytelling roots. 

"Bundling information into narratives encourages engagement," Berger insists. 

Let's take the Serial podcast, for example. If you're not already familiar with the podcast, the 12-episode spin-off of This American Life chronicled the 1999 Baltimore murder case of Hae Min Lee. And while it would be naive to credit this particular program with the return of podcasting, its success certainly helped to generate a lot of attention for the medium. 

By repackaging the case into a compelling story, it quickly became something that people wanted to share and talk about. And while stories are quick to spread, inserting an emotional factor will help them go that much further, as people are known to share things that make them feel something. 

"As I talk about in my book, the more we care, the more we share. But some emotions increase sharing more than others. While positive things tend to be shared more overall, we found that certain negative emotions, like anxiety, do increase sharing. Serial was the perfect blend of anxiety and suspense that drove people to share," says Berger. 

So whether you're tuning into a weekly account of a murder trial that has you on the edge of your seat, or you're feeling inspired after listening to a thoughtful Q&A with your favorite marketer, there's no denying the power of storytelling mixed with emotion. And if podcasts continue to marry the two so seamlessly, there's no telling how far this idea will spread. 

The Yoga Pants Obsession 

Walk around most college campuses and cities in the U.S., and you'll start to notice an unofficial "uniform" on many of the women. 

And by unofficial uniform, we mean yoga pants. Everywhere. Every day. 

If it's raining, people often opt for the yoga pants/Hunter rain boot combo. Snowing? You'll see the triple threat -- yoga pants, North Face jacket, and Ugg boots. If it's bright and sunny, many will rock yoga pants, flip flops, and a t-shirt. (For the record, I'm guilty of these pairings myself.)

Certainly there has to be a logical explanation for this trend -- but what? Why yoga pants?

Similar to kale, we can't ignore the fact that there has been a recent uptick in healthy living initiatives. Over the last decade, the yoga and Pilates industry has grown significantly, which certainly contributes to an increased demand for the corresponding apparel. But, that's not the only driving force behind this trend. 

In terms of Berger's principles, there is definitely something to be said about the influence of social currency.

Take the wildly popular athletic apparel brand, Lululemon, for example. Lululemon has used social currency to establish themselves as the crème de la crème of yoga pants. At it's core, social currency has a lot to do with the concept of making people feel like "an insider." One way to create this type of social capital is to leverage scarcity and exclusivity to impact perceived value and interest in a particular product or service.

According to Berger, "Scarcity and exclusivity play a part in the signaling process by increasing desirability. If not everyone can have something, it makes you look better to have gotten it."

In an effort to create this sense of exclusivity, Lululemon runs their new colors and seasonal items on a 3-, 6-, or 12-week cycle, and they stock a limited number of items in stores to make them appear scarce. As a result, their new items are known to fly off the shelves, despite the fact that there are cheaper alternatives available (a typical pair of Lululemon yoga pants retails for ~$100). 

"What we buy not only serves a functional purpose, but it also signals things about us to others. Sure, other yoga pants might work just as well for half the price, but people aren’t buying Lululemon because it’s the cheapest. They’re buying it because of what it says about them -- that they are into yoga and are wealthy enough to afford the brand," Berger told me. 

While it's evident that leveraging exclusivity and scarcity to create social currency is effective, Lululemon has even more tricks up their sleeve. 

Their strategy also leans heavily the principles of emotion and publicity, as demonstrated by their unique ambassador program. Essentially this program recruits local fitness junkies -- yoga teachers, triathletes, runners -- before a store opens in their area. As a Lululemon ambassador, they are tasked with spreading the word about the brand, and to make it that much easier, they are awarded free Lululemon apparel for their participation.

By encouraging their ambassadors to sport the gear, they are effectively making their product more public. This increase in visibility works to get people wanting, thinking, and talking about the apparel. 

Aside from wearing the yoga pants, the ambassadors are also responsible for promoting the brand, the lifestyle it encompasses, and the community that they are trying to create. This sense of community often elicits emotion -- whether it be a sense of belonging or a new found motivation -- which powers them to share and talk about the brand. 

"Products are more likely to catch on if they are part of a larger social movement. People aren’t just buying something; they are participating in something larger than themselves. Good brands build a community, almost a religion, around what they are doing. There is an ethos or value system they stand for, and buying the product allows consumers to be part of that movement," explains Berger. 

Sparking the Next "Big Thing"

While kale, podcasts, and yoga pants are three perfectly good examples of ideas that spread like wildfire, not all ideas share the same fate. 

So how can businesses prevent an idea from flopping? Here's Berger's advice:

"Many people think that sharing today is quite different from what it was 20 years ago. But in all the hype around the technology, people forgot about something much more important: the psychology. Why people talk and share in the first place, and what drives them to share some things rather than others. Some companies have collected millions of friends and followers, but if no one shares your content, it doesn’t matter. The key is understanding why people share, and using that understanding to craft contagious content."

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Topics: Public Relations Content Marketing Pop Culture

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