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What Makes A Viral Hit?

2014 November 12
by Greg Satell

When Hershey launched Reese’s Pieces, they knew it would be an uphill battle.  Its had to compete with M&M’s, the 800 lb. gorilla of the industry.  They hoped co-branding  the new product with its popular peanut butter cup would help, but M&M’s dominated the category.

It was slow going for the first few years, but then in 1982 opportunity knocked.  The brand was offered a product placement in a new film about a boy who befriends an alien by luring him with candy.  The producers were looking for $1 million to provide product placement.

Mars, the owner of M&M’s rejected the deal, but Hershey’s took a shot and it paid off.  E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial passed Star Wars to become the highest grossing film ever.  Reese’s Pieces became a viral hit and sales shot up 65% in the first two weeks after the movie hit the theaters.  If you want to know how ideas spread, you can learn a lot from that little alien.

 Was  E.T. An Influential?

Candy is a tough business.  Everyone has their favorite treat that they use to celebrate their highs and sooth their lows, which makes it hard to change habits.  So it wasn’t surprising that Reese’s Pieces struggled to build market share against a powerhouse brand like M&M’s. However, the social epidemic that E.T. unleashed completely changed the trajectory.

In his bestselling book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell provided an explanation for viral hits like the Reese’s Pieces meme.  A special class of rare people, he reasoned, can give spark to an idea due to the influence they have on the rest of us.  He called his “Law of the Few,” which he formulated as:

The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.

These gifts, Gladwell explained, came in three distinct flavors: “Connectors” are social butterflies, traveling between diverse groups of people and seeding ideas. “Mavens” become a trusted resource by collecting knowledge and sharing it freely and “salesmen” have almost magical powers of persuasion.

Yet strangely, E.T. falls into none of these categories.  It is, of course, a fictional character, maintaining no personal relationships and possessing no domain expertise or innate social gifts of any kind.   Clearly, there’s something wrong with Gladwell’s Law of the Few.

A Sticky Idea

Steven Spielberg, who directed the movie, is a master storyteller.  His two Academy Awards and $8.5 billion in box office receipts put him in the upper echelon of filmmakers.  For him, Reese’s Pieces played a clear narrative role—a device for Elliot, the young hero of the story to lure E.T. into the house and, later, to cement the emotional bond between them.

The candy fit perfectly, which is why the film’s producers sought out both the makers of M&Ms and Reese’s Pieces.  Having Elliot create a trail of the pea sized treats was a clever way—both unexpected and somehow comforting—for the young boy to create a bond with an alien life form.

Here we find a much less mysterious explanation for the Reese’s Pieces craze.  Books like
Made to Stick and Contagious extol the use of unexpected narrative devices to inject stories with emotion.  Stories, after all, are much more than vehicles to convey information, they must hold our attention and find their way into our hearts if they are to be memorable.

And lets face it, there’s just something adorable about a visitor from outer space jonesing for our earthly sugary treats.  It makes us feel like we’ve made a contribution to the universe.

Pervading Social Networks

E.T. was a runaway hit, opening at number one at the box office and staying there for six whole weeks.  It then continued to sell out theatres for the rest of the summer and into the fall.  It was nominated for nine Academy Awards and has been consistently rated one of the best films in theatrical history.

So it’s easy to see how Reese’s pieces became part of the conversation.  When people who saw the film over the weekend returned to work and school, they unfailingly met others who watched it too.  Discussions ensued and before long, others who had not yet watched the movie were convinced to go buy a ticket and see what all the fuss was about.

Before long, E.T. saturated our social networks.  As people relived the experience of watching the film, they couldn’t help but mention the lovable little space alien’s penchant for the tasty, colorful treats.  The Reese’s Pieces meme became part and parcel with the blockbuster movie.

Hershey then reinforced those conversations with an ad campaign featuring E.T. enjoying the candy, further cementing emotional bonds to both the story and their product.

The Two Essential Elements Of Viral Memes

The story of E.T. and Reese’s Pieces is an unusual one and not easily duplicated.  Nobody could have predicted that the film would be such a big hit, which is why Mars, the maker of M&M’s, refused to invest $1 million to place their product in it.  So to a large degree, Hershey simply got lucky.

Still, the case highlights two elements that are essential to any viral hit.  First, is context.  The candy was not merely placed in the movie, it was a crucial narrative device.  Second, is density.  Those who watched the film could be reasonable certain that people they knew had seen it to, so Reece’s Pieces became a natural conversation piece.

In many ways, the second point is more interesting and useful to marketers because it suggests that you don’t need a blockbuster hit like E.T. to start a conversation.  Studies by Solomon Asch in the 1950’s showed that even local majorities can have enormous influence and other research suggest that those local majorities can lead to collective behavior.

Yet what is perhaps most important about the story of Reese’s Pieces viral hit is how conventional and straightforward it is.  We don’t need to tap into mysterious powers of influence to make an idea spread.  In reality, what’s essential is a good story and a density of social relationships.

– Greg

2 Responses leave one →
  1. November 16, 2014

    Thanks Greg, plus they taste really good. It helps to have a good product or idea first.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Good point. Thanks Robert.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

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