A method for dramatically increasing the recognition, recall, and unsolicited sharing of an idea or expression.


Popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point, the term stickiness refers to the ability of specific ideas to become lodged in the cultural consciousness. Stickiness applies to anything seen, heard, or touched — slogans, advertisements, and products. Six variables appear to be critical in the creation of sticky ideas:

1.   SimplicityThe idea can be expressed succinctly without sacrificing depth (e.g., “It’s the economy, stupid,” used during Bill Clinton’s 1992 U.S. presidential campaign).

2.   SurpriseThe idea contains an element of surprise, which grabs attention (e.g., when the Center for Science in the Public Interest wanted to alarm consumers to the amount of fat in movie popcorn, they noted that it had more fat than “a bacon-and-eggs breakfast, a Big Mac and fries for lunch, and a steak dinner with all the trimmings — combined!”).

3.   ConcretenessThe idea is specific and concrete, using plain language or imagery (e.g., John F. Kennedy’s 1962 moon speech: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade…”).

4.   CredibilityThe idea is believable, often communicated by a trusted source or as an appeal to common sense (e.g., Subway restaurants’ Jared campaign engaged the personal testimonials of Jared Fogle, complete with before and after photographs, to show the benefits of his Subway sandwich diet).

5.   EmotionThe idea elicits an emotional reaction (e.g., on Halloween in the 1960s and 1970s, false rumors circulated that sadists were putting razor blades in apples, panicking parents, and effectively shutting down the tradition trick-or-treating for much of the United States).

6.   StoryThe idea is expressed in the context of a story, dramatically increasing its memorability and retelling (e.g., the Cabbage Patch Kids craze was due to the story attached to them — each doll is uniquely featured, named, and delivered with a birth certificate from BabyLand Hospital.

Consider stickiness in the design of instruction, advertising, products, and other contexts involving memory. Keep messaging concise but profound. Employ surprise to capture attention and motivate sharing. Ensure that ideas are expressed using specific time frames and objects or events available to the senses. Favor presenting evidence and letting people draw their conclusions. Incorporate practical triggers to evoke a strong emotional response—couch ideas in rich contexts to improve memorability and transmissibility.

See also Archetypes, Propositional Density, Storytelling, and von Restorff Effect.

This iconic poster by artist Shepard Fairey became synonymous with the 2008 Obama presidential campaign. The poster’s simple message, unique aesthetic, and emotional grass-roots appeal made it incredibly sticky, creating a viral sharing phenomenon as soon as Fairey posted the image on the Web.

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