I recently read The Evolution of Everything: How Ideas Emerge, by Matt Ridley, and was struck by the following passage:
‘Evolution is far more common and far more influential than most people recognise. It is not confined to genetic systems, but explains the way that virtually all of human culture changes… The ways in which these streams of human culture flow is … undirected ,emergent and driven by natural selection among competing ideas’.
Over the past few years, my company has been trying to identify factors which fuel the spread of ideas, and why some succeed, while others fail. Here are some of the insights and hypotheses we want to share:
1. Ideas choose people – not the other way round
Ridley echoes Richard Dawkins, who suggested that infectious ideas are, like genes, selfish replicators – units of cultural transmission (“memes”) that are unconsciously imitated as they spread through populations. People often talk (metaphorically) of being ‘drawn towards’ ideas they love, or of being “repelled” by the things they hate – as if it is the ideas themselves that exert an irresistible (emotional) attraction. In this view, memes are emotionally supercharged ideas that attract and recruit people.
2. We want to belong to really great ideas
When great ideas ‘recruit’ us it creates a sense of shared ownership: of the idea belonging to us, but also of us belonging to the idea. Think of great brand tribes like Coke and Nike. People queue up all night outside the Apple store to get their latest product because they want to be part of (belong to) something special. Indeed, the reason that marketers value the idea of ‘identification’ with brands so highly is that it implies a merging of the consumer with the brand. Thus it is no coincidence that the most infectious brands often have extremely good ratings for ‘seem to speak to me directly’. This empathy is crucial because infectious ideas need to connect with people, and it follows that ideas that fail to connect may not fulfil their infectious potential.
3. Energy and excitement are the key drivers of infectiousness
We often speak of infectious ideas as having a ‘have a life of their own’ – some inner energy that propels them through the population. We talk about ideas “really going somewhere”, or “going nowhere”, and tiredness and lethargy are metaphors for ideas that are failing. Our studies show that the most infectious brands and objects are those most strongly imbued with a sense of energy and excitement – because it is these qualities that inspire us to share ideas with others.
4. Truly great ideas create inspiration… and awe?
Truly infectious ideas often seem to have something more, something indefinable. There are some ideas, people and objects seem almost to hold us in their thrall. One 19th century German writer talked about the feeling of helpless awe that we feel in the presence of something so special and powerful that it seems to transcend normal (rational) experience. He called it ‘numinosity’.
Far-fetched? Perhaps, and, of course Apple is not a religion, and no one goes to Apple heaven when they die. Yet many of its followers ‘believe’ in the power of its products and become evangelists for them. The power of truly inspirational or ‘numinous’ ideas such as Apple manifests itself in our desire to identify with them and to spread the word on their behalf. It is that sense of inspiration excitement and awe that has made the Apple brand so attractive… and infectious.