Kale, Podcasts & Yoga Pants: The Secret Formula Behind Ideas That Take Off

Why do some ideas seemingly come out of nowhere to become massive cultural phenomenons, while others never catch on? What do kale, podcasts, and yoga pants all have in common?

The answer lies in the science of popularity and the key elements that drive people to talk about and share certain things rather than others. In his bestselling book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, marketing professor Jonah Berger reveals the secret formula behind ideas that take off.

Drawing on a decade of research and data, Berger identified six key principles, or STEPPS, that cause people to talk about and share an idea or trend:

  1. Social Currency: People share things that make them look good and feel like insiders.
  2. Triggers: Ideas and products that are top-of-mind because they‘re associated with common contexts and stimuli.
  3. Emotion: When we care, we share. Emotional content tends to be more viral.
  4. Public: The more public and observable something is, the more it spreads as people imitate each other.
  5. Practical Value: People like to share useful, actionable information and pass along advice.
  6. Stories: Compelling narratives provide the context and reasons for people to talk about a product or idea.

We can see all of these STEPPS principles at play in the viral popularity of kale, podcasts, and yoga pants over the last decade. Let‘s dive into each one.

The Kale Kraze

Kale popularity statistics chart
Source: USDA

Kale‘s meteoric rise from obscure leafy green to the ultimate superfood and cultural icon was no accident. It was carefully orchestrated by the American Kale Association, which hired a PR firm to make kale cool.

They started by getting kale on the menus of trendy, high-end restaurants – tapping into kale‘s social currency as an insider food trend. Placement in aspirational lifestyle and wellness publications, as well as endorsements from celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, made kale an emotionally appealing symbol of health.

Because kale is so versatile and can be incorporated into so many foods and recipes, it started showing up everywhere. A 2017 study found that kale consumption increased more than 5X from 2007 to 2012. This public visibility triggered more people to jump on the bandwagon.

Kale‘s practical value as a nutritional powerhouse made it highly sharable – people wanted to inform others about this beneficial superfood. The storytelling around kale‘s transformation from humble garnish to must-have ingredient made it ripe for viral sharing.

Pod People

Podcasting growth statistics chart
Source: Edison Research

Podcasts may seem like an overnight success, but they‘ve actually been around since the early 2000s. However, podcasting has seen explosive growth over the past 5 years as smartphones and streaming audio have hit the mainstream.

Several of the STEPPS principles converged to propel podcasting to mass popularity:

  • Social Currency: Listening to podcasts became a status symbol – a way to convey being cultured, intellectual, and "in-the-know." Talking about popular shows like Serial or sharing quirky, undiscovered gems conferred social capital.

  • Triggers: The ubiquity of smartphones meant people could easily listen to podcasts anytime, anywhere – while commuting, working out, cooking dinner, etc. Having podcasts top-of-mind in these everyday contexts spurred listenership.

  • Stories: Podcasts allow for immersive, intimate storytelling that breeds fanatical followings and get people talking. Just look at the explosive watercooler conversations around narrative hits like S-Town or Dirty John.

  • Practical Value: People also share podcasts that teach them something or give actionable advice, like self-improvement shows or true crime investigations which offer lessons and insights.

A quarter of Americans now listen to podcasts weekly, and the medium has become culturally all-encompassing with over 2 million shows as of 2022. There‘s a podcast for every niche interest, demonstrating the power of these STEPPS principles in tandem.

Lululemon‘s Legging Legacy

Yoga participation statistics
Source: Statista

Yoga pants, specifically those from Lululemon, are now ubiquitous as the go-to comfywear for women everywhere. But Lululemon didn‘t just sell apparel, they sold a lifestyle, masterfully pushing the STEPPS buttons:

  • Social Currency: Lululemon built scarcity and exclusivity into its brand by understocking merchandise and using a "here today, gone tomorrow" product strategy. Having the latest Lululemon gear became a coveted status symbol. Their visible omega logo became a marker of a fashionable, healthy lifestyle.

  • Triggers: Lululemon chose locations very intentionally, targeting upscale areas near yoga studios, juice bars, and high-end gyms. Seeing the Lululemon bag or logo in these contexts kept the brand top-of-mind and made it spread.

  • Public: Lululemon‘s best advertising is customers wearing its clothes out and about as walking billboards. The more people publicly wore Lululemon, the more other people imitated and flocked to the brand.

  • Emotion: Lululemon sells more than yoga pants; they sell self-actualization and empowerment. Their manifesto encourages people to "do one thing a day that scares you" and "dance, sing, floss and travel." The clothing has an emotional, aspirational appeal.

  • Stories: Lululemon created a rich brand mythology and community around healthy, active, mindful living that people want to buy into and make part of their identity. Their visible logo signals to the world that you subscribe to these values.

By incorporating all the STEPPS into its marketing, Lululemon became a cultural phenomenon, with a rabid fanbase and revenue surging from $453 million in 2010 to over $6 billion in 2021.

The Science of Sharing

STEPPS principles summary chart
Source: jonahberger.com

These case studies illustrate the power of Berger‘s STEPPS when applied in the real world to engineer virality. But the applications go far beyond kale, podcasts and yoga pants.

Any business can harness these principles to shape consumer behavior and craft contagious content:

  • Make people feel like insiders. Scarcity and exclusivity boosts word-of-mouth. Think member‘s only perks or limited-edition products.
  • Tie your product to common contexts. Link what you sell to everyday environments and situations to increase mental triggers and top-of-mind awareness.
  • Focus on feelings. People share things that evoke emotions, whether it‘s awe, excitement, anger or anxiety. Move hearts, not just minds.
  • Design for observability. The more public something is, the more it‘s imitated. Consider how your product can advertise itself through consumer use and social proof.
  • Highlight incredible value. Give people useful, practical information they‘ll want to pass along to improve others‘ lives too.
  • Tell a memorable story. Narratives provide the why and context for people to share your message. Facts tell, stories sell. Make your brand part of people‘s identity and worldview.

The next time you have an idea or product you want to catch on, consider the secret formula behind other things that have taken off. Social currency, triggers, emotion, public visibility, practical value, and stories – together they spell viral success.

Key Takeaways

  • Virality isn‘t random or luck – it can be engineered using Jonah Berger‘s 6 STEPPS principles
  • Kale, podcasts, and yoga pants all went viral by tapping into these key STEPPS in various ways
  • Any business or idea can be optimized for word-of-mouth by applying the STEPPS formula
  • Contagious ideas are more than just creative marketing – they require understanding the deeper psychological and social drivers of human behavior

By examining the underlying formula behind crazes like kale, podcasts, and yoga pants, we can all learn to craft messages and campaigns with the right ingredients to take off. The science is clear – now it‘s up to savvy marketers to put it into practice.