The Value of a Story

I have been thinking about marketing lately and a lot of what I’m hearing and reading points to the central role of storytelling. The idea being that the story of a product is sometimes more important than the features and benefits of the product itself. This reminded me of a couple of entertaining stories I heard about art scams
that illustrate this concept pretty well. Art is an interesting category to think about with respect to the value of storytelling in marketing because the value of the product is highly subjective.

A documentary called Art and Craft tells the story of art forger named Mark Landis who convinced 45 museums all around the world to accept his forgeries into their collections. Landis offered the works for free so he didn’t actually do anything illegal. What’s interesting about this in the context of marketing is that if art can be replicated so well that experts can’t tell the difference between a fake and an original, that seems to confirm that the value of art has relatively little to do with the technical work itself. There must be another source of value in the original that is not present in fakes. I think most people would say the original is uniquely valuable because of its origin, and its history, and that there is only one actual original, so there is scarcity, and that ultimately it’s valuable because the market has deemed it so — all factors that can only be conveyed, or derived, through storytelling. The real and the fake offer the exact same practical utility as a physical good. The only way to know that one is valuable and the other worthless is through an accompanying backstory.

The radio show Snap Judgement ran another story that reinforces this point. A man in New Jersey contrived a tale about a man who kept showing up at his small, unknown gallery in New Jersey leaving behind interesting works of art (one such delivery was handed over in pieces in a garbage bag) but unwilling to reveal his identity. In the gallery owner’s telling, “when [art buyers] heard the story…a firestorm started…the show was an incredible success and a lot of New York collectors were very interested in it.” He goes on to say “once the [New York] Times wrote about it, it was on!” People loved the story. The Times just added credibility to it. Ultimately, the owner came clean and some buyers were understandably infuriated. What’s interesting is the product didn’t change at all. The story he sold them did, thereby diminishing or even altogether eliminating the value of the product in their minds. The value to the buyers was not in the material good, but in its accompanying story and what it meant for them to have a stake in it.

Although neither of these are affirmative examples where true stories added to the value of the product, both illustrate how essential the story is to perceived value, particularly in a category where value is highly subjective. The fascinating thing to me is the same holds true for products with clear utility. I read that the iPhone, for example, is frequently beaten out in terms of features and performance by other competing brands, but people love the Apple story, and as a result, make seemingly irrational decisions in the product’s favor. In most cases, I think both product and story matter. If the iPhone was a terrible product, the story would be irrelevant. The product has to be good, or at least meet expectations. Building trust with customers is essential if you want them to be loyal so telling the truth about the product is also critical. That said, it’s probably important to know when the product is “good enough for now”, and shift resources to crafting and communicating an emotionally compelling story for customers. The reality is most consumers’ physiological needs are finite and generally already being met. Their emotional needs on the other hand are arguably infinite. Those needs aren’t met through features, benefits or facts, they’re met through stories, the stories they tell themselves about what it says about them to buy your product.