Buzz: Would You Change Your Name for This Man?

Swarthmore’s Mark Hughes is a buzz marketer, advertising’s new breed that will do practically anything—such as talking Halfway, Oregon, into renaming itself — to gain an edge

Price saw more than a blotch. “It was like a snowflake, there was no other blotch in the world like it. … I saw in the blotch a kind of sticking your finger in the eye of the Establishment.” Price told his bosses he’d like to promote tie-dyeing to young people. “They were,” he recalls, laughing, “horrified.”

Best Foods did Price a big favor — they gave him no budget. So he wore his blotch to Greenwich Village and taught hippies to replicate it on their own clothes, but he couldn’t advertise. The hippies told him about Woodstock, and how they’d like to sell t-shirts with the blotches at the festival. Price got them t-shirts. The fashion trade publications weren’t interested, so Price hired artists to custom-dye a few bolts of high-end fabric at a warehouse in Chinatown, and began inviting fashion designers over. Halston, who worked at Bergdorf Goodman, finally bit. Halston’s tie-dye collection quickly found its way onto celebrities, and into the movie Love Story and the pages of Life Magazine. Then Price cemented tie-dye into mainstream America: He took it to the Girl and Boy Scouts and the YMCA, which “were having a terrible time seeming hip.” They began teaching their members how to tie-dye. Kids everywhere started raiding the Rit racks.

“It was,” Price says today, “the Tipping Point, decades before The Tipping Point.”

I suppose you know all about The Tipping Point, the mega-best-seller by New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell that analyzes consumer trends in the language of epidemiology. As soon as it came out in 2000, The Tipping Point became its own epidemic in the marketing universe; every company wanted to launch campaigns as organic and clever — and cheap — as Price’s Rit Dye coup.

The promise of the tipping point — the promise of buzz — is as simple as choosing multiplication over division. It’s choosing the number of viewers or listeners or trendsetters times the number of friends each one tells times the number of friends each of them tells. Whereas the Old Media advertising model forces companies to divide readership or viewership by the number of people who actually read or watch by the number of people who actually pay attention to ads by the number of ads they’ll actually look at before flipping the channel or pushing the forward button.

The Tipping Point begat another, corollary marketing phenomenon: guru envy. Here this guy Gladwell, who wasn’t a marketer, was selling — branding — tipping! — himself as the smartest man in marketing. And suddenly, from nowhere, with no MBA and nary a new product launch under his belt, Gladwell was being flown to companies to give $40,000 speeches, and CEOs were buying whole runs of his books for their marketing departments. What The Tipping Point described was what every good marketer intuitively knew, of course, but Gladwell had broken through the clutter, branded himself as marketing’s new guru, and stolen all the buzz for himself.