The experiment that proves the value of stories

It turns out you can put a price on the value of a good story – and it’s a lot more than you might expect

December 10, 2019

The experiment that proves the value of stories

In early 2009, two men in their early forties set off around the thrift stores and flea markets of New York City, looking for junk. They acquired 100 pieces of what might best be described as, “tat.” These were the types of objects that you could find in anyone’s dusty attic, at the back of anyone’s kitchen drawer, or down the back of anyone’s sofa. Their only common feature was that they had no obvious value whatsoever. They included novelty pens and snow globes, plastic toy mustangs and planes, old tin badges and unused boxes of birthday candles, pez dispensers and lost keys. They weren’t antiques, they weren’t unusual, they wouldn’t have impressed any collector. And they were acquired for an average price of just $1.29.

By November of that same year, the two forty-somethings had succeeded in selling every single one of these junk-store items on eBay. The total price for the collection? $3,612.51.

What could possibly have happened to these objects to drive a 2,799% increase in their market value? What chicanery had the two men been engaged in, to dupe online buyers into over-paying so catastrophically for things that were ostensibly worthless? Were they fraudsters? marketing geniuses? expert art historians with an eye for value that nobody else could see?

Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn were none of these things. They were journalists, bloggers and editors with great contact books of talented, creative and innovative writers, and they had just conducted one of the most thought-provoking experiments yet devised into the commercial value of stories.

At the time they launched their Significant Objects Project, Walker and Glenn were writing for the likes of The New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post. Much of their writing had a common theme around the question of what gave objects their value. They had a daring hypothesis and a downright brilliant idea for proving it.

Walker and Glenn’s idea was that the emotional value that comes from attaching a story to an everyday object is so strong that it can be measured in terms of objective, actual value. In other words, you can put a price tag on the value that a story creates by appealing to potential buyers on an emotional level. To test this, they paired each of the objects they had acquired with a published writer, and asked that writer to pen a short story about it. The pair then put each object up for auction on eBay, but instead of the standard, factual description, they uploaded the fictional short story instead.

Pricing up the value of a story

The effect on the amount that people were prepared to pay was spectacular. Walker and Glenn had picked up a ceramic horse bust, made from a mould and painted by somebody at home, for 99 cents. When it was listed with a story by the writer Beth Lisick about how two people met through a very risqué university hazing ritual, it’s value increased by a staggering 6,258%, to $62.95. A ceramic bear that acts as a salt shaker saw its value shoot up from 99 cents to $36 after the writer Annie Nocenti made it the centre-piece in a blow-by-blow account of a poker game. The experiment showed the monetary value of heart-breaking stories too. A devastating tale about a pink plastic horse from Kate Bernheimer delivered one of the biggest of all increases in value: from $1 to $104.50. I’m not even going to calculate that one as a percentage – it just gets silly.

The experiment had set out to prove that stories impact directly on the perceived value of things and on the price that people are willing to pay – and on its own terms, it succeeded spectacularly.

Of course, there were some strings attached. The people buying the Significant Objects on eBay didn’t just get the object – they acquired a framed copy of the story for their object too. They may even have heard of the writer. You should maybe bear this in mind before you go marching into the CFO’s office, boldly claiming that investing in storytelling will increase the value of their brand and its products by several thousand percent. There might have been a wee bit of mitigating circumstance going on when it came to the really big price increases.

However, none of that should stop you boldly marching into the CMO’s office and arguing for the value of telling compelling stories as part of your strategy. There is an inescapable truth about stories, emotion and their impact on perceptions of value that this experiment makes undeniably clear. It’s not just an argument for brands telling stories – it’s also an argument for brands being brands.

How to make brands emotionally significant

The stories in The Significant Objects Project provided shoppers on eBay with an emotional frame of reference for the piece of junk they were looking at. They gave them an option for associating emotion with something they had no personal, emotional connection to. They gave them the opportunity to engage their imagination, and imagine a reason to pay more for it. They proved that you don’t have to own something for years for it to acquire sentimental value – all the power of that emotional connection can be packaged up and attached to it.

The people who bought these objects on eBay were investing in objects that had been made meaningful, memorable, and which in turn made them feel part of something bigger. As a potted description of how brands work, that’s pretty hard to beat.

The recent study of the role of brands in B2B that Binet and Field conducted for LinkedIn’s B2B Institute, confirmed the importance of emotion in driving long-term competitive advantage for brands. The stronger the emotion they succeed in associating themselves with, the more famous and memorable they become – and the more effective they are at priming people to buy. If you look at the price hikes that different Significant Objects achieved from a brand perspective, you would perhaps conclude that although the bear shaker-poker game story was tense, and the horse’s bust-university hazing story was sentimental and a little big shocking, the pink horse story elicited the strongest, most tear-jerking emotion of all – and therefore the greatest value.

Inviting audiences to be part of the story

The experiment didn’t just tell stories, of course. It also invited its audience to participate in those stories. Taking ownership of an object with a tale associated with it writes yourself into the next chapter. And something similar happens on the occasions when brands succeed in giving audiences the feeling that they have a role to play in a wider story. I often think that this is the real difference between the few brands who have managed to establish a meaningful purpose, like Patagonia and The Body Shop, and the many others that try but don’t make it work. Successful brand purpose doesn’t just preach; it empowers the audience to be a part of something that matters to them in an accessible, practical way.

This inclusivity and interactivity in storytelling doesn’t have to involve an overt sense of purpose, though. There’s one current brand campaign, in particular, that reminds me so much of the Significant Objects Project that I’m almost convinced it was inspired by it. Since 2016, the UK building society Nationwide has been running ads featuring poets reciting poems that reflect the diversity of British life and experience. The brand recently evolved its ‘Voices’ campaign to incorporate stand-up comedians doing the same. It drove Nationwide’s share of switched accounts from 13% to 20%, and it did so by inviting audiences to feel an emotion, associate that emotion with something everyday and functional (like a bank account), and feel part of something bigger in the process. And like that experiment in the junk shops of New York, it proves there’s no better vehicle for doing this than a story.