Paradox of Diffusion of Innovations: 50yrs for Diamond Rings, But 194yrs for Scurvy Cure

Photo by Bruno Scramgnon from Pexels

Diffusion curves capture the spread of new ideas. A typical diffusion looks like this:-

Diffusion Curve

All new innovations are first adopted by Innovators and Early Adopters. As word of mouth spreads, it reaches critical mass once the majority of the population adopts the innovation by aping early adopters first, and then each other.

Innovation is useless to humanity if it does not get adopted by enough people. Marketing can help accelerate adoption of innovations.

Diamonds are Forever

In late 1900s, new diamond mines were discovered in Africa. This increased the supply of diamonds overnight. The British owners did not want the price of diamonds to fall on the back of ample supply.

So they created a cartel called De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd. to control supply. And hired an advertising agency to create demand. The agency — Ayer, marketed the idea that the love and romantic interest a young man felt for a woman, was directly in proportion to the size and price of the diamond ring he gave her.

This was a perfect system delicately balanced on the ideas of scarcity and preciousness
– larger the diamond, more precious the love
– more precious the love, more men want to gift a diamond
– more men want to gift diamonds, less the supply
– less the supply, more the price

The idea caught on globally. It took 50 years to become mainstream in the US. Only 30 years in Japan and 16 years in China.

% of First-Time Brides Who Got a Diamond Engagement Ring
Source: SensaiAlan/Flickr 1960 De Beers ad in Reader’s Digest

Apparently, Scurvy is Forever too

More soldiers died from scurvy than from war. In 1497, 100 out of a crew of 160 of Vasco da Gama’s crew died of scurvy.

Repeated experiments starting in1601 proved that taking citrus ended scurvy.

But this idea did not gain acceptance until 1795, when James Lancaster served lemon juice on one ship on a voyage to India and nothing on other three ships. 110 out of 278 soldiers on the three ships died from scurvy.

The British Army did not learn from this.

150 years later, in 1747, James Lind, a British Navy Doctor conducted an experiment in which again soldiers that were fed citrus fruits did not contract scurvy.

Even with this decisive proof, the British Army adopted citrus as part of crew diets only in 1795.

If only there had been a concentrated effort and leadership to share the idea that citrus prevents scurvy, this much needed idea would have spread faster.

This is the Paradox of Marketing

The power of marketing ensured that it took just 50 years for diamond engagement rings to be adopted by a majority of the population in the US, while the cure for scurvy took 194 years to become mainstream.

Surely, the benefit of the cure of scurvy far outweighs the benefit of diamond engagement rings for humankind.

What could the physicians curing Scurvy have done to accelerate the adoption of their finding?

  1. Recruit Early Adopters: In most societies, people in power tended to be early adopters. De Beers was run by a powerful group of businessmen, who funded its success. Physicians could have persuaded the most innovative Kings or Army Generals to see the benefit of the cure and become a sponsor
  2. Make Citrus Aspirational: De Beers created fake scarcity and a new idea that people who gifted diamond rings loved their girl friends more. With the result that entire populations started chasing diamond rings. All physicians had to do was to position citrus as a rare fruit that was available to only the best and most influential sailors. This would have created a hunger and demand for the fruit amongst the rest of the sailors, making the task of the physicians easier and curing scurvy centuries earlier.

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I synthesize a two decade consumer marketing experience with the world’s greatest brands, into mental models to help marketers level up at www.performonks.com.