The Book Corner - Review

“Contagious: Why Things Catch On” by Jonah Berger

Contagious: Why Things Catch On

Contagious: Why Things Catch On

by Jonah Berger
Simon & Schuster, 2013
256 pages

3 stars: Valuable information and a good readWhen Apple’s iPhone 5s was recently released, long lines of Apple aficionados began to form at Apple Stores, some with proxies to purchase the new phone on behalf of real customers. Such has become new product release protocol for Apple, but for Jonah Berger, long lines outside retail establishments are a form of “Word of Mouth” contagion that spreads through society like a virus–hence, going viral–a powerful endorsement for both companies and products alike.

Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at Wharton, analyzes “Why Things Catch On” in a sort of Malcolm Gladwell approach to marketing analysis, meaning that the book is light on data and theory, but heavy on speculative observations. Because it is ten times more effective than paid advertising, word of mouth is a powerful force in the market place and Berger identifies his catalysts for word of mouth contagions like: Social Currency–We share things that make us look good; Emotion–When we care we share; and, Practical Value–News you can use.  However, none of these catalysts are as convincing as long lines outside retail establishments, like the legendary lines waiting at In-‘N-Out. Goldberg advances that long lines are a ringing product validation, or “Social Proof,” of the consumers’ embrace of the product for which they wait tediously and tirelessly. Visible and conspicuous, lines of customers are much more convincing than media advertising, something that Apple and In-‘N-Out, not to mention Starbucks, consciously minimize if not avoid altogether.

Except for the concept of Social Proof, the most interesting part of Goldberg’s book comes in its unrelated Epilogue, “Why Eighty Percent of the Manicurists in California are Vietnamese.” The chapter explains niche market cornering such as how Koreans own 60 percent of the dry cleaners in New York and how 80 percent of Los Angeles donut shops are owned by Cambodians. The answer rests in cultural assimilation—or, perhaps, cultural dissimilation—patterns among immigrants, cut off by ESL communication skills in a new country, where early successes of immigrant classes were channeled into isolatable small retail proprietorships—nothing to do with word of mouth viral marketing but perhaps part of another book that didn’t pan out.

When speaking of the mercurial popularity of new restaurants, the social philosopher Yogi Bera famously observed, “No one goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”  For Goldberg’s contagions, the Yankee catcher is noting how viral marketing eventually dissipates, that Social Proof captures all the new patrons it can as the restaurant lives out it days off those customers who have already inhaled the contagion.