The Tipping Point
Malcolm Gladwell
Contributed by Sherie Debus
Chapter 6

This chapter begins with the story of Airwalk, a company that grew to be very popular in the 1990s. The company started selling shoes known as skateboarding, but later on expanded its business to include mountain biking, bicycle racing, and also surfing. Airwalk wanted to target more skaters and, therefore, sought to redesign its shoes and make them an international brand. Of the various strategies the company utilized, the key was hiring a small advertising company with the aim of reshaping the brand’s marketing campaign. Through its efforts, the advertising agency, Lambesis, helped Airwalk’s popular suddenly explode, expanding its market net worth to 6 million US dollars by the year 1990. Four years later, Airwalk had increased its sales to 44 million dollars, but it didn’t stop there. The succeeding year saw its sales multiply extraordinarily to 150 million dollars and later to 175 million. Airwalk received global recognition and was voted to be amongst the top fifteen coolest brands of all times. Here, Glawell recalls the concept of mavens, connectors and stickiness to explain why Airwalk tipped and gained popularity within such a short time.

Gladwell explains the role of Lambesis in the rise of Airwalk through the diffusion model, which explores how ideas can be contagious in a given population. For instance, in 1928, a new type of corn seed was introduced in Iowa. Even though it had superior qualities as compared to other grains, it did not gain popularity immediately. With time, the new seed gained popularity as more farmers became aware of its superiority. Gladwell calls the few who began using the seeds as innovators. The innovators influenced another group of people called the early adopters who were then respected as opinion leaders. Their influence led to the adoption of the new idea by the majority, also known as the conservatives. The conservatives depend on the early adopters in that unless the latter told them of a new invention or idea, the former would never buy it. They caught the virus (the new seed) from the early adopters and consequently spread the idea to the laggards. Gladwell asserts that the transition from one group to the other forms an epidemic curve that is perfect in every design.

Another contagious aspect of social messages presented by Gladwell is rumors. Rumors can distort the original message. For instance, in experiments to gauge remembrance of original messages amidst rumors, people were subjected to various memory experiments. In the end, it was established that they could not recall the essential aspects of the initial message even just a few months later. Whereas some bits of the initial message are often left out, Gladwell points out some of them can be sharpened. Memories were associated with pictures, and their meanings were profoundly influenced by the need to have a better or simpler configuration.


The elements of social epidemics—the connectors, the mavens, and the salesmen that are discussed in chapter one—form the basis of this chapter’s arguments. Furthermore, Gladwell’s concepts of the law of the few, the stickiness factor and the environment are put into practice by analyzing various case studies. In this chapter, the author strongly suggests that a product or an idea must go through a transition for it to reach the tipping point. Through this process, a product is redefined, and hence it is made to stick and ultimately becomes infectious. Airwalk Company had its advertisement mechanism centered on the attributes of epidemic transmission best understood through the diffusion model. The model holds that the adventurers, otherwise known as the innovators, are responsible for beginning a new idea or trend. The early adopters, who comprise of the respected members of the community then avail the pattern to the broader community who then spread the word to the early and late majority who then pass it over to the laggards. As such, Gladwell argues that it is due to the early adopters that the majority lot correctly understands the spreading idea.

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