The Cookbook: A scientific recipe for creating cultural contagion

In today’s hyper-connected world, the allure of ‘going viral’ continues to seduce marketers and idea-generators into investing significant time and resources toward the creation of content – videos, memes, tweets, posts, etc. – that spreads. There is seemingly no shortage of brands, business owners, or storytellers who covet the opportunity to have their ideas trend on Twitter, rake up 1 million+ views on YouTube, or garner thousands of Facebook likes. Metrics of social-chatter are then used as a proxy for success with the inclination that virality leads to reach and reach implies potential action. Though there are benefits to ‘going viral’, one must wonder if virality is truly what we’re after or if perhaps there is something far greater worth pursuing.

This provocation led me to the movie Avatar, the highest grossing movie ever made. Avatar has been seen the world over. One might even say that Avatar had gone ‘viral.’ Though I had seen the movie 3 times – twice in the theater, in IMAX – I couldn’t recall the lead character’s name. Juxtapose the movie Avatar with the movie Frozen and the outcome is far different. During the time of this research, I had never seen the movie Frozen, however, I knew the lead character’s name (Elsa), I knew the storyline, and I knew the words to “Let It Go.” It probably comes to no surprise then that in 2014, Frozen went #1 on Billboard with no radio play. “Let It Go” was the #1 most requested karaoke song that same year. Elsa was the #1 Halloween costume in 2014 and among the top baby names as well. While Frozen went on to be the most successful animated movie, its impact was more than just getting seen by tons of people – i.e. ‘going viral.’ Frozen was culturally contagious, and that’s far more powerful than going viral.  

Virality, at its core, is simply the rate of exchange from one person to another over a period of time. The greater the exchange, and the shorter the time span, the more viral the content is considered to be. This exchange is typically measured by how many times a video or post has been seen or shared, which of course has significant value. Cultural contagion, on the other hand, is the spread of ideas, products, messages, and behaviors which take hold in culture. Unlike ‘going viral,’ cultural contagion goes beyond things being seen and takes a step forward to how they directly impact the beliefs, rituals, artifacts, and language within a population. This is achieved by leveraging the conditions of the Contagion Cookbook - a research discovery which details the drivers of cultural contagion:

  • Content: the communicative nod which is built to share
  • Credence: transferable cultural authority and/or trust
  • Covers: the repeated expression of an idea through derivative works
  • Complements: the environmental dynamics that cannot be controlled but can be exploited
  • Concurrence: the perceived ubiquity of an idea

The Cookbook provides marketers with the tools they need to create and launch their own culturally contagious ideas across a spectrum of industries. It looks at the way seemingly organic, cultural norms can be fabricated and designed to drive behavioral adoption at mass. This is not about ‘going viral,’ though the earned media is a welcomed side-effect. Instead, the Cookbook is myopically focused on permeating a population's consciousness and stimulating cultural wake.