In 2013, when I was studying at Harvard, I took a marketing class at Harvard business school taught by Michael Norton. At the time, I was doing my PhD in Music History, but was participating in a Summer MBA program aimed at PhD candidates like me who wanted to add a business background to their liberal arts studies. This program eventually led to a career change. I moved from academia to founding my own brand and story consulting agency in Vienna.
As part of the class, I checked out Norton’s publications, most notably his book Happy Money which doesn’t just explain how we can spend money to be our happiest selves (think: invest in experiences instead of material things), but, six years after its initial publication, explains how an entire generation is living and prioritizing their lives. And why brands have to invest in the “Story Experience” if they want to reach a generation for whom experience is capital.
Stories Are The New Millennial Currency
It’s the millennial effect. Stories have become the currency of all our lives. And the place where stories are traded most often these days is Instagram. But it is not just the telling of our stories that is important, we want to live them, too.
Some brands have understood this fundamental shift, and that has led from “Telling a brand’s story” and “what a brand stands for” to “Helping customers tell their own story.”
In All Marketers Are Liars, Seth Godin explained how brands tell stories that customers then tell themselves. In 2019, though, the relationship between story, brand, and consumer goes beyond that. It is no longer just story “telling” that brands need to grasp. Rather, they must understand story “living,” or “story experience,” if they want to capitalize on a hunger for stories. And increasingly, that’s something they must do if they want to connect with their customers.
#Doingthings Is Illustrating Millennial Fitness Culture
One example of a brand who enables its customers to tell their own story is the fitness label Outdoor Voices (OV), who includes the hashtag #doingthings in their ad campaigns. This hashtag has been used more in more than 158k Instagram posts by real people, the majority of whom aren’t being paid for their regular promotion of the brand.
Instead, OV helps its customers to promote their own active lifestyle and can-do attitude, or rather, “#doingthings-attitude.” The beauty of this hashtag is its versatility. It can be applied to almost anything.
In this way, OV puts the experience first. Instead of spending millions of dollars on ads, Outdoor Voices have taken a different approach, an experience-first and people-generated approach. They have organized a system in which the audience tells their own stories. OV put on events in their stores in Texas, California and New York City and then they allow their customers to do the storytelling for them.
According to a recent article in The New Yorker, about 95% of Instagram ads for OV are user-generated. This stands in stark contrast to brands like Nike, who employ celebrities to promote their brand instead of basically everyone in their customer base.
Back Market Puts The Experience First
Back Market is another company that seems to understand Millennial experience culture intuitively. The online marketplace for used tech and refurbished phones are known for their hilarious marketing and ads, which seamlessly use social media as a reference point and utilize knowledge of Instagram and Twitter as a tool to reach their desired audience.
In a new campaign, they mocked Apple’s “Shot on iPhone” campaigns by putting two pictures side by side. One, shot on an iPhone X the other on a refurbished iPhone X. The difference? Proximity to the action. Spending your money on a new iPhone gives you a great shot, but also means you have no money left to actually experience the things you are photographing first hand.
What Back Market is advertising is exactly what Norton is saying in his book: Don’t spend money on things, spend it on experiences! Only in Back Market’s case, you also get to take beautiful pictures of these experiences with your refurbished iPhone. Perfect for showing off your fun-filled life on the gram!
In 2019, Brands Have To Help Us Tell Our Own Story Better
In a time in which we constantly share stories, in everything from emails and tweets to Instagram to awkward Uber driver and barista chats, we have all become painfully aware of our personal brand. We know when we’re looking good, and we know when we’re not quite making it work.
So where does this leave actual brands? In a world in which we’re all advertising ourselves, and know how to tell stories, brands have to help us do those things better.
Brands need to open up new ways for their customers to tell their own stories, be that through a brilliant hashtag or by using their product. It doesn’t matter what you’re selling—if you give your customers the tools to tell their story in the best way possible, you will become an integral part of that story.
Rebecca Vogels is founder and CEO of the Brand and Story-Agency All of the Above. She is a Keynote Speaker, Forbes contributor and was named Top 50 Most Powerful Women in Tech by the California Diversity Council. She offers workshops about personal branding, story, and purpose. You can find out more about her #storyfirst approach here.