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Why some ideas stick and others don't

By Michael S. Hopkins / January 23, 2007



On April 29, 1999, an article appeared in the Indiana Daily Student headlined "Indiana U. Senior Gains New Perspective on Life." You'll recognize the story. It profiled a 425-pound college kid who cut his weight in half by eating fast food. His name was Jared.

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Part of the reason you know the story is that Subway – the place Jared got his veggie and turkey subs every day – turned it into an ad campaign that transformed Jared into an unlikely celebrity. (Possibly you can still picture him in his "after" version, stretching the 60-inch waist of his "before" pants between two widespread hands.)

But the Subway campaign alone doesn't explain the nearly viral phenomenon it triggered. There have been countless other ad campaigns since Jared's debuted, and none of them imprinted an unknown college student on the nation's memory the way Subway's did. Nor did many of them so swiftly and lastingly get their message across. ("Our food, though fast, is actually so healthy it can help you lose weight.")

Why not? What was it about Jared's message that made it – and him – stick?

Now, thanks to Made to Stick, we know. Coauthors (and brothers) Chip and Dan Heath – a Stanford Business School professor and an education entrepreneur respectively – spent a decade disassembling and trying to understand the inner workings of memorable, persuasive ideas, no matter what kind of packages they came in.

They studied political speeches, urban legends, news reports, management directives, and marketing messages like Subway's – not to mention culture-crossing proverbs, the various fables of Aesop, and the many soups of chicken (for the soul).

It didn't matter whether the ideas themselves were good or bad, just that they'd "stuck." (Not only is the Great Wall of China not the sole man-made structure visible from space; it isn't visible from space at all. And still...)

What the Heaths discovered was that the stickiest ideas, regardless of intrinsic merit, had a lot in common. Or, more accurately, the ways they were presented had a lot in common.

How to spell success

Each of these ideas, as conveyed, could be described using one or more of just these six à la carte attributes: simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and story-containing. Line up the first letters of those characteristics, add a lower-case "s" (poetic license), and you've got the handy acronym SUCCESs. (Well, whaddya know...)

If that sounds like typical pop-lecture hokum (and it does, as the authors admit), it's not. What the Heaths have produced, complete with mnemonic handle, is a powerfully useful checklist for understanding how connections can be wired between ideas and people – between your ideas and the people you hope will be struck by them.

Why expertise doesn't always appeal

In separate chapters for each of the six principal characteristics, "Made to Stick" explores in depth exactly how, say, concreteness provides more hooks for recall (the "Velcro theory of memory") and why abstraction is often what unintentionally results from expertise.

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