Four and a half hours, alone, with little variety in the landscape than the occasional hill. That is the drive from Minneapolis to Madison that I’ve made a handful of times in the past 3 months. While it’s not the most riveting journey, there’s something serene about it. When there’s little traffic and little for you to do besides staying in your lane, it becomes all too easy to become engrossed in your thoughts.
On my latest expedition back to Madison, I heard a clip of Seth Godin being played on the radio. It was from a TED talk some time ago. The topic of the radio show was how things spread, and Godin was discussing the spread of ideas using the example of ketchup, mustard and hot sauce. He pointed out that there are dozens of kinds of hot sauce, all very successful. Tobasco, Sriracha, Red Hot, Cholula, and Valentina all came to mind as hot sauces that I have tried and loved. They all taste different, they are all different takes and imaginations of what hot sauce could or should taste like, and they all are considered to be widely popular.
However, Godin was quick to mention that Ketchup and Mustard don’t have this same variety. It’s not that there isn’t a variety of ketchups or mustards out there, or that you can’t do something cool and unique with either condiment. Rather, it is because of the word otaku. Otaku is the Japanese word for people who are obsessed with something. According to Godin, part of the reason for the success of hot sauce brands is because hot sauce has an otaku, and ketchup and mustard do not. Due to that obsessive fanbase, hot sauces have proliferated into an industry where a brand can distinguish itself, be competitive and reach success.
Godin points this distinction out because part of the consideration of brands or ideas to becoming successful is putting itself in a position where their idea will spread. Ideas rarely spread because of the idea itself. Rather, it is the way in which it is presented and who it is presented to that will cause it to realize prosperity.
While this might seem like an ingenious example for a standard concept, only proving what we already know (that marketing is essential to an idea or products success), it got me thinking while I was driving. Can an idea create its own otaku or must it be prisoner to existing obsessive fanbases? If so, how?
Godin gave the example of Blendtec, the creators of “Will It Blend?,” the viral campaign where the founder of Blendtec, Tom Dickson, put various items in a blender that should not go in, seemingly to demonstrate it’s power. People couldn’t get enough, couldn’t stop talking about it, and the campaign became something where people wanted to tell other people about it. Basically, it created an otaku, because people became obsessed with the show. It was entertaining and ridiculous. So, one way to create an otaku for your idea is to take your product and apply it in an unconventional and entertaining way, a way that will get people itching to tell their roommate, friends or family about it.
That’s easier said than done though, and it struck me that I was somewhat limited in the amount of products I could think of that had achieved this. So there had to be another way. Now, the “Damn Daniel” video popped into my head. For the uninitiated, the video features two teenagers, one name Daniel, the other his friend. Daniel’s friend captures multiple videos of Daniel wearing white vans, and comments “Damn Daniel, back at it again with the white vans,” among other comments about his style.
Daniel and his friend went on Ellen and received a lifetime supply of Vans, Snapchat added a “Damn Daniel” geofilter, kids around the country were saying it constantly, even on college campuses. I wondered, what about this video made it so popular? Was it Daniel’s friend’s voice? Was it Daniel’s reaction? Did it just happen to get spread by the right people at the right time?
None of those seemed to be sufficient answers to me, so I thought of a different explanation. What if Vans had positioned itself as having the exact right identity to foster an otaku? I’ve never found anyone to be obsessed with Vans. They are relatively inexpensive, stylish and popular shoes, true, but I’ve never had someone vent to me about how disappointed they are with Vans new lineup, or give me a speech about how amazing Vans are or convince me that I should own a pair because they are the best shoes ever.
Vans did not have an otaku before, but they did create a consistent identity. The combination of inexpensive and stylish made it so that the shoes were very popular with teenagers, skaters, and college kids. Being rather easy on the wallet to replace made it so that getting a white pair wasn’t a huge risk, leading a pair of white Vans to become a staple amongst the younger generation.
All it took was one relatively elementary video about a topic that the entire youth population could identify with to launch Vans from being popular to having an extraordinarily widespread otaku. Instead of trying to identify an audience with an otaku, Vans stuck by their audience, stayed consistent and basked in the glory of viral social media when that audience doubled down on their preexisting interest.
So what can hot sauce, “Damn Daniel” and Japan teach brands trying to find success? How you present your idea, and who you present it to is paramount. It can define your sales, it can evolve your identity, but if you can grasp onto a consistent and ironclad vision of what you want to represent to an audience, it can transform into having a lifelong otaku that rarely fades away.