Business Book Review: Contagious Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger

This book is simply a great read on the idea of viral marketing. How does a product or idea market itself? That is, what characteristics give it a life of its own and take it to a place well beyond any traditional marketing dollar spend. This is what every business wants: products or services so awesome that there is no need for traditional marketing.

A few examples in the book:

  • $100 cheesesteak
  • Videos showing a blender tearing apart marbles, phones and more
  • Pairing Kit Kats in marketing messages with coffee
  • Anti-drug commercials that might increase drug use
  • Using % off vs. $$ off for sales

Much like the Malcolm Gladwell books, this is chock full of interesting and intuitively correct anecdotes The tone is casual, written for non-academics. For those who want to go to the sources, the Notes section does provide a lot of academic references. 

Berger uses STEPPS: Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value, and Stories to move the reader through factors that make a product contagious. For example, he shows that NASA’s Mars Pathfinder program actually boosted Mars Candy’s sales, though it had no connection, other than the name, to the NASA program. Not very practical, but interesting.

My favorite chapter is on creating triggers. If you think of beaches, you might be triggered to associate Corona beer with them due to their commercials. Kit Kat wanted to create more triggers for its candy, so it made commercials with the candy associating it with coffee. Have a coffee break? Have a Kit Kat, too. Want to sell French wine in your store, play French music. He argues, convincingly so, that good marketing will associate the product with common triggers. 

There are numerous examples throughout the book that can give business owners ideas on how to create and market products and services better. While not explicitly a how-to book, anyone reading it will connect the content to real-world examples they see every day.

The book is a quick read, but I plan on re-reading it again in a few months, as it has so many examples and a solid underlying theory of how things go viral that I’ll want to take a second look. I would highly recommend this to other business owners as it is sure to provide a lot of ideas that could be implemented.