Diffusion – Of Ideas, Infections and Innovations

Quick Read: Why do certain ideas spread faster than others?  Diffusion – a social process where people talk to people is still the way that ideas and inovations spread. Stories from diverse fields like health care and ethnic foods provide further evidence.  

Did you know the story of the humble Doctor’s coat?

Till a major part of the 19th century, a doctor’s coat used to be black in color. Why? Because a visit to a doctor had an air of ‘finality’ attached to it, almost like the solemn nature of a funeral. As per this historical account, until the late 19th century, seeking medical advice was usually a last resort and frequently a precursor to death. The reason? Poor hygiene standards in medical practice.

In fact, back in those days,  a doctor’s badge of a busy practice was their black coats stiffened with blood and remains of previous operations. Practices like washing hands, sterilising instruments were virtually unheard of in medical practice during those days.

Naturally infection became the curse of surgery – becoming the single biggest killer of patients who underwent even uncomplicated procedures. Infection was so prevalent that the discharge of pus from a surgical wound was thought to be a necessary part of healing!

Ever since then, many medical practitioners tried hard to conceive of and spread the idea of basic sanitation as an effective means to combat preventable life threatening infections. But failed.

For e.g, Ignaz Semmelweis published the earliest known studies that showed basic hand-washing to be effective at reducing mortality rates of surgery patients. His findings were known to have offended the doctors! Even Louis Pasteur’s Germ Theory or Joseph Lister‘s concept of antiseptic surgery techniques contributed little to the mainstream propogation of the idea of sanitation in health care.

grossclinic(“The Gross Clinic,” by Thomas Eakins, 1875. Source)

The break through in seeding this key idea came over the course of several years as follows.

It turned out that the key message to teach surgeons was not how to stop germs but how to think like a laboratory scientist. A few pioneering German surgeons siezed upon this idea – of the concept of surgeon as a scientist – and seeded this in their students’ minds, many of whom were young medical practitioners from US and other countries.  The result?

The students swapped their black coats for pristine laboratory whites and returned to their home countries as ambassadors not only for the use of antiseptic practice to kill germs but also to prevent germs.  Evangelising through their own students and colleagues, they finally spread the ideas worldwide.

So, the idea of basic sanitation and sterilization for health care and germ prevention spread not because of academic journals or publications, but because of social diffusion – where people (medical practitioners) talked to people (students).

Spreading a Miraclous Solution. One Person At a Time

In many parts of the world, Diarrhea remains the world’s biggest killer of children under the age of five. ORS (Oral rehydration solution) has been known to be a simple yet effective cure for the illness which required a miraculously easy formulation that can be made at almost every home around the world  (water + sugar + salt).

In 1980, a Bangladeshi nonprofit organization called BRAC embarked on a nationwide ORS adoption drive. How did they go about this? The organization didn’t launch a mass-media campaign. It attacked the problem in a way that is typically dismissed as impractical and inefficient: by going door to door, person by person, and just talking.  

ORT(Door to door ORS Education by BRAC, 1979 . Source)

They hired, trained, and deployed thousands of workers region by region who went door to door through more than 75,000 villages and showed 12 million families how to save their children with this simple solution. Eventually, the knowledge became self-propagating and child deaths from diarrhea plummeted more than 80%  between 1980 and 2005. The program was stunningly successful. (source)

Shifting gears a bit and moving over to Ethnic Foods..

 The Greek Yogurt Revolution In The US

Till 2005, Greek Yogurt was a niche segment in the US with a market value of just about $60 million. But in just 5 years a new brand, Chobani has gone to become one of the most explosive food start-ups ever to hit the market netting more than $1 billion in annual sales and rejuvenated the entire Yogurt category in the US. How did that happen?

Ofcourse, Chobani, under the visionary founder Hamdi Ulukaya,  had a brilliant execution of its mix – from clutter breaking packaging, category defying in-store placement (he is known to have insisted that Chobani packs be merchandised in the main dairy area, not in the specialty section), competitive pricing and appealing flavours.

Chobani(Chobani Ad Campaign extolling its fruity goodness. Source)

But fortunately for Chobani – the timing was just right. Consumers were adopting healthier snack options into their busier lifestyles. So much so that when someone opened a pack of Greek Yogurt, it inadvertently became an instance of conspicuous consumptiona prominent scenario of social diffusion enveloped in a message of healthy tasty snack. 

So each time a pack of Greek Yogurt was opened, it created awareness and generated talkability around Greek Yogurt’s health benefits and unique taste. And this was even before its first mass media campaign. As Niel Sandfort, Director of Marketing at Chobani says..

“Before you even think about mass media or paid media, you have to have your ducks in a row on a number of fronts.”

So by the time, the company embarked on its first mass media campaign, the size of the population that was aware of or bought Chobani at least once, reached a “tipping point“, allowing the product to take hold widely. The result? An explosion in the growth of the Greek Yogurt segment. 

Today, the Greek Yogurt category – once a niche segment –  now accounts for 36 percent of the $6.5 billion in total U.S. yogurt sales (source) with Chobani being the number one seller in the category, with nearly 52% market share in the US!

Perks Of Being A Party Food

Guacamole – is an avocado based dip that originated with the Aztecs in Mexico. But in less than a generation, it went from an unknown Mexican delicacy to becoming part of everyday cuisine as a dip, condiment and salad ingredient. This growth of gacamole  was partly because it’s a party food. i.e., people discovered it when others shared it. 

So in essence, while we yearn for frictionless, technological solutions, people talking to people is still the way that ideas and innovations spread. In fact,Diffusion of innovations – a theory by Everett Rogers that seeks to explain how, why, and at what rate new ideas and technology spread throughcultures – says diffusion as a social process of people talking to people is central in spreading an idea or innovation among the members of a social system.

Meanwhile Sabra – a PepsiCo owned company that sells Middle Eastern food products in the US  – is fretting that 80 million Americans have never heard of hummus

(H/T: to Seth Godin for this riff on Guacamole, to Atul Gawande for this valuable article on idea diffusion in medical practices. Featured Image source 

The Allure Of Being Limited: Part 2/2

Quick Read: Value as a concept to a consumer has 2 key dimensions: perceived benefit and perceived cost of a product. But the moment a third dimension called ‘availability’ is introduced, the equation becomes intriguing and interesting, especially when the former is limited – in reach or time.

Imagine someone unboxing a case of 20 blind boxes – each box contains a sealed wrapper that holds a mystery toy within.

For each foil he unwraps and realises the actual toy within – a miniature character –  he lets out an exclamatory ‘aah’. The look and feel of this miniature character makes him marvel at the detail and the exquisite craftsmanship that must have gone into its make, while he also makes a mental note to himself regarding its probable name and where it fits in the larger family of its ‘toy clan’.

And this goes on for each of the 20 blind boxes containing a mystery miniature character within.

Box after box.

And did I tell you that he is an adult in his 30s?

Difficult to imagine, right?

No worries.  For there are thousands of videos here showing this very story unfold. Box after box.

This video here is a good representative version. (strongly recommended dose of some infotainment before you read further)

What did we just see?

Adults –  acting like kids on a christmas morning, unable to contain their excitement as they hold their breath while they unwrap a foil to discover a pretty little toy character within.

Welcome to the world of Urban Vinyl and Designer Toys – a world where toys become prized possessions and collectibles because of two reasons: 

  1. They are works of art designed by prominent international pop culture and graffiti artists.
  2. They are produced in limited quantities  – some as few as 10 to a maximum of 2000 – thereby becoming some of the rarest toys of that kind to be ever made.

Qee series produced in Hong Kong by Toy2R,  Be@rbrick from Japan and the Dunny series produced by Kidrobot are some of the most prominent examples of Designer Toys and Urban Vinyl.

Let’s take Kidrobot – known to be the Mecca of Designer Toys enthusiasts – founded in the US in 2002 by Paul Budnitz. It calls its limited edition Designer Toys as an innovative cross between sculpture and conceptual art, offering not only a powerful medium for today’s international fashion designers, illustrators and graffiti artists, but also the creative canvas for emerging street trends and pop art.

And due to these toys being ‘limited edition’ in design and make they retail anywhere from $5 to $25,000, and many appreciate in value over time. (source)

Kidrobot Dunny(At the intersection of Art and Cult –  The Kidrobot Dunny, Source)

A few more fascinating details regarding Kidrobot and its Dunny Series Designer Toys:

  • Packaging: Each Dunny Designer Toy comes in a foil wrapped inside a blind box. These blind boxes are identical in every way to any other box in a given set so nobody knows which toy is inside. A foil is used to wrap the toy so nobody can open the box and peek inside. (also shown in the unboxing video above)
  • Product Assortment: While the outer case would have some indication of what characters to expect inside, not all of them can be expected to be contained within. Each toy character would have an odds ratio indicating its probability of occurrence within a set. Interestingly there are some characters called ‘chases’ with unknown odds called out as ‘?/??’, while a few are shown mysteriously only in silhouettes. Occasionally, they also include ‘super mystery figures’ that aren’t even indicated on the box, which tend to be some of the rarest ever made of the kind!

Kidrobot Official Dunny Series 2012 Checklist & Ratios(The odds ratios as printed on the cases of Dunny Series 2012, Source) 

  • Kidrobot’s approach to marketing is anything but ordinary: Read here a short interview with Paul Budnitz where he reveals how he has taken a marketing approach opposite to that of most companies.
  • How Kidrobot manages its creative capital: Kidrobot’s approach to distribution of decision making power within the company, its open source design strategy, and how it regularly commissions rock star designers rather than in house artists in order to let a sort of ‘fluidity’ permeate the entire company makes for a fascinating read.
  • Tie ups and Partnerships: Given the cult level popularity and the artistic appeal of Kidrobot’s limited edition toys, it naturally makes for a very coveted partner. For e.g., in Jan 2014 CES, Samsung Galaxy partnered with Kidrobot to land the message about the brand being a new touch point in artistic expression.

samsung_kidrobot_0235wtmk-1280x878(Samsung partners with Kidrobot in CES 2014, Pic source: Slash Gear)

And so it goes on – a fascinating story of how a bunch of unassuming tiny vinyl toys have grown to become icons of pop culture that regularly pull in rabid fans and ardent collectors, who neither mind queuing up for hours outside its stores nor forking out hundreds or even thousands of dollars to buy these designer toys while making its company a multi million dollar brand that it is today.

And when one reads this, sometimes all one can manage to say could be …

…while perhaps even wondering on a wishful note to oneself  damn! where can I get one myself!!”

(Featured Image: Set of Huck Gee’s Night & Day Raku 8” Dunny released in 2011.These were a limited edition of just 500 sets.source)