Branding: The Six Principles of Contagious Ideas


The book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, by Jonah Berger, is a quick read that is guaranteed to get your brain buzzing. If you’re in the marketing and advertising industry, it’s full of simple and fun to read “Why didn’t I think of that?!” notions. Berger, who is a Professor of Marketing at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has spent hours upon hours researching messages that became contagious, meaning they caught on and became viral sensations. Berger’s research led him to create what he calls six key STEPPS. The STEPPS are all great things to consider when you’re using tools to position your brand online, because they’ll help make your brand more sharable and start an online conversation about your product.

Here are Berger’s six principles of contagious ideas:

Principle 1: Social Currency

Think about your product and how it makes people look cool to be talking about it. You need to delve into your brand and think about your inner marketability, while figuring out how to craft messages that make people feel like insiders. When people feel like insiders, they appear to their friends to know about interesting things, increasing their social capital.

Principle 2: Triggers

It is important to remind people to talk about your product. When people are chatting, they’ll often talk about whatever comes to mind, so the more often they’re reminded of your product, the more they’ll talk about it. Berger explains, “We need to design products and ideas that are frequently triggered by the environment and create new triggers by linking our products and ideas to prevalent cues in that environment. Top of the tongue leads to tip of the tongue.”

Principle 3: Emotion

Caring leads to sharing. You should be thinking about crafting messages that make people feel something. Emotional things get shared. Your product may have great functionality, but sometimes it’s good to focus on the feeling of your messaging. It’s important to think about how to trigger the right emotions because triggering the wrong emotions can lead to negative outcomes.

Principle 4: Public

Think about how to make your product or idea more public. The more visible your product is, the more likely that people will want to imitate it. This is a great approach to marketing a product, because if you’re constantly thinking about how to make your product as visible as possible in the public sphere, you’ll effectively create a product that markets itself.

Principle 5: Practical Value

Think about how you can create content that makes your product look useful. You should be creating content that shows others how your product will save them time, save them money, improve their health, etc. When a product is useful and has practical value, people will spread the word for you. Berger explains, “We need to highlight the incredible value of what we offer—monetarily and otherwise. And we need to package our knowledge and expertise so that people can easily pass it on.”

Principle 6: Stories

You may have a message in mind, but how do you put this message into a more compelling narrative? This is an important question to ponder, because simply sharing information can be boring. Think about how to tell a story. Doing this means your potentially dull message is now traveling undercover as an interesting story … and people love sharing stories! Think of creative ways to embed your product or idea in stories that people want to tell.


These ideas aren’t new, but a little refresher might be just the thing you need to trigger your next great online branding plan. The ingredients will help you create a great recipe for making your ideas catch on.