Give 'em Something to Talk About

Your product may be good, but will it spark a conversation?

If you go to Portland, Oregon, everyone wants to talk about Voodoo Doughnut. They talk about the caffeinated doughnut. Or the chocolate-glazed chocolate doughnut rolled in Cocoa Puffs cereal. Or the voodoo-doll-shaped doughnut that bleeds raspberry filling when impaled with a pretzel pin. Oh, did we mention that a Voodoo founder will conduct your wedding--with doughnuts and coffee for 10--for $175?

Dunkin' Donuts customers leave with tasty doughnuts. Voodoo customers leave with tasty doughnuts and a conversation to have with their friends.

Conversation isn't everything; clearly you'd take Dunkin' Donuts' P&L over Voodoo's. But all businesses today crave the credibility, not to mention the free advertising, that comes from word of mouth. As such marketing matures into its own discipline, more companies are thinking about how to kick-start it. So why is it rare to find a business that is good at sparking these customer conversations?

The conundrum for companies is that good products or services aren't enough. Ritz-Carlton hotels are undeniably among the best in the world. And yet, if you've just returned from a stay at the Ritz, what conversation do you have with your friends? "The hotel was great--check-in was faster than usual, the rooms were nicer than usual, and the food was more delicious than usual." Hmm. Better just show vacation photos.

On the other hand, consider Doubletree Hotels. In the lodging spectrum, Doubletree is a "medium"--nicer than La Quinta but not as full service as Four Seasons. It should be hard to find something to say about a medium player. And yet there's a conversation everyone has about the Doubletree: When you check in, they give you delicious, fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies. These conversations provide a concrete symbol of warmth and homey service. (We baked cookies for you!) Cost aside, Ritz-Carltons would likely outrank Doubletree hotels in every conceivable survey dimension. Except the one that creates conversation.

Call it the 105% Rule. From a word-of-mouth perspective, it's virtually impossible to discuss an experience that is 5% better than the norm on all dimensions. People don't talk like mystery shoppers, reporting diligently on each relevant feature. People talk about the exceptions, the unexpected, the highlights.

If there's any place that's hard to find exceptions, it's the beverage case of a supermarket or café. Your bottle can be a little taller or have a cool photo, but really, it's all the same. That's exactly why Innocent Drinks, a juice and smoothie maker based in London, has a talkable personality. Four years ago, Innocent launched a campaign called "Supergran," in which English grannies knit little woolly hats for its seasonal winter smoothies (so the bottles don't catch a cold).

And we're not talking a couple of grannies, either. Due to demand for the hats (and the smoothies), Innocent lined up enough grannies to knit 230,000 of them in 2006. Even better, it donated a portion of sales revenues-- 50 pence per hat-wearing smoothie, £115,000 ($225,000) total--to Age Concern, a charity dedicated to keeping older people warm in the winter. Never thought a bottle of juice could be a conversation piece?

Most organizations systematically snuff out anything that's distinctive enough to spark conversation, usually through processes and committees. Would woolen caps for smoothie bottles have survived a committee decision at Coca-Cola? Could a formal market-research process have justified the VW Beetle's bud vase? ("Our conjoint analysis has revealed that customers' willingness to pay increases by $112 with the bud vase.") When people with different opinions compromise, they meet in the middle, not at the edge. But the edge is what sparks conversation.

There is a certain wackiness to Voodoo Doughnuts and Innocent Drinks that is probably unattainable for, say, an accounting firm or an equipment retailer. But wackiness isn't the only recipe for generating conversation. Take Zipcar, the Boston-based rental-car company designed to serve non-car-owners in big cities. It sprinkles cars around a city so that, with a reservation, you can walk right up to a car on the street, wave your card key at the windshield, and be driving toward the grocery store seconds later. Zipcar customers talk about, of all things, its policies and pricing. The company charges a low hourly rental rate that--gasp!--includes gas and insurance. Zipcar has, honorably, opted out of the Collison Damage Waiver extortion racket. ("Initial here to acknowledge that you'll go bankrupt if you get in an accident.")

Of course, Zipcar has the luxury of competing with other players in its industry who have masterfully leeched out any trace of humanity or novelty in the rental experience. Even a parts-per-billion element of personality, if allowed to exist in this market, might create a word-of-mouth revolution: Ginger-scented air fresheners? A Frappuccino waiting in the cup holder? A car you might actually enjoy driving?

The fact is that talkability is not a reflex for most of us. We have to work at it. Many companies today seem to believe that word of mouth is something marketers conjure up after a product launch. That's a tough assignment, akin to hiring a PR agent to generate street buzz about your office's "white elephant" Christmas party. If you wanted buzz, wouldn't it have been a better investment to throw a cooler party?

Conversations can't be "snapped on" after the fact. You have to plan for them. So what's your plan? How can you give your customers something to talk about?


Fostering the conversation you want customers to have about your products should be an explicit part of product development.

  1. The Doughnut
    Voodoo Doughnut in Portland, Oregon, has a cult following because its customers want to tell their friends about goodies such as glazed doughnuts rolled in Crunch Berries cereal.
  2. The Smoothie
    How many people talk about their smoothie purchases? If the smoothie is wearing a wool cap knitted by a grandmother, they will.
  3. The Policy
    Zipcar's policies create a conversation-worthy experience: Renters pay by the hour, gas and insurance are included, and the company doesn't charge for such amenities as satellite radio.

Read more Made to Stick columns

Chip Heath and Dan Heath are the best-selling authors of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. If you've been successful in efforts to design your products or services to spark conversations (or if you made a good attempt and failed), tell us about it. Email us at heaths@fastcompany.com.

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