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Attach a Story to a Product… and Watch Its Value Rise

How to get $41 for a yo-yo that costs a quarter.
COLLABORATORS Rob Walker, Joshua Glenn
The value of an object increases if it has a story
photo by iStockPhoto

"Buying In"

“Stories are such a powerful driver of emotional value that their effect on any given object’s subjective value can actually be measured objectively,” assert Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker on their website Significantobjects.com. The entire site is home to an experiment that sets out to prove it.

Glenn is the author of Taking Things Seriously: 75 Objects with Unexpected Significance. Walker is the author of Buying In: What We Buy and Who We Are, and was long the “Consumed” columnist in the New York Times Magazine. Their experiment was aimed at answering the question, How much does a product’s value rise if you attach a story to it? The answer, it turned out, was 2,706%.

The experiment went like this:

Glenn and Walker bought cheap throwaway objects from thrift stores and garage sales, always for pocket change or a couple dollars at most. Then a writer would create a fictional story about the object, in any voice or style.

The once-unremarkable object (now transformed into a “significant object” by virtue of the fictional back story and information associated with it), then would be listed for sale on eBay. The winning bidder would receive the object and a printout of the story.

The difference in original purchase price and story-enhanced resale price would be recorded as the value added by attaching a story to an object.

Examples: A pair of plastic shark and seal pens cost $1.99 to buy. Its resale price, after Susanna Daniel added a story, was $35—an increase of 1,659 percent. A yo-yo with the Amoco logo on it cost 25 cents. Its resale price, after Mark Sarvas added a story, was $41—an increase of 16,000 percent.

The overall results for the first 100 items bought, storied, and resold on eBay: average object purchase price: $1.29. Average resale price after the story was added: $36.12. Average increase in value: 2,706 percent.

Glenn and Walker repeated the experiment with subsequent batches of objects— and found average value premiums that rose even higher.

What’s the moral, besides the obvious (good stories by good writers make worthless things worth something)? Glenn and Walker don’t say—though they do execute a fair bit of persuasively wonky analysis that’s worth sifting through.

It’s hard to avoid this upshot: When selling something, meaning matters. Even, apparently, if the meaning is made up.


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Walker is worth following to one of his other new publishing locations: his blog on designobserver.com.

One post describes the benefits of “The Bizarro Storytelling Exercise,” which “would entail devoting serious, systematic, hard thought to the question: What is the very worst story someone could tell about our company/brand/product?”

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