Retail Observer

August 2020

The Retail Observer is an industry leading magazine for INDEPENDENT RETAILERS in Major Appliances, Consumer Electronics and Home Furnishings

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RETAILOBSERVER.COM AUGUST 2020 46 T he year was 1347. The night was freezing cold and the towns- people were desperate. An ill-tempered tsar, in a fit of pique, had outlawed fire in the tiny hamlet of Dnobst. The frostbitten citizens, facing certain death, prayed for a savior. None guessed that it would come in the form of Vralkomir, the strange little cobbler that most of them had tried to avoid. Okay, the story isn't exactly true. But what is real is that it was responsible for a 6,333-percent increase in the value of a nearly worthless piece of junk, as I'll shortly explain. It's proof that a story can generate a ton of money. The backstory begins with Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker, ingenious writer- researchers who in 2009 created the Significant Objects Project, an experiment designed to test whether a story – the attachment of a character-driven narrative – could increase the sale price of an otherwise unremarkable item. Glenn and Walker scoured thrift shops and bought dozens of trinkets, then gave each one to an accomplished writer. The writers' assignment: craft an engaging story – the more ridiculous the better. One hideous trinket, a broken plastic doll with a felt moustache, was given to novelist Doug Dorst. He invented the aforementioned Vralkomir, dubbing him "the patron saint of extremely fast dancing." In Dorst's telling, the townsfolk on that cold winter night were huddled in the home of the mayor. They watched in amazement as Vralkomir dragged a giant log into the town square and cut one end of the log into a disc. Vralkomir jumped up on the disc and commenced dancing so frantically that sparks from his heels soon ignited the wood, whereupon it burst into flames. Dnobst was saved. "No one else in the village," wrote Dorst, "could duplicate his feat of terpsichorean ignition, and he died of exhaustion in mid-April, a beloved martyr." Glenn and Walker took this silly 660-word essay and posted it with a picture of the trinket on eBay. No explanation or fanfare, sale price TBD, they simply let the bidding begin. And as outrageous things often happen online, it went viral. By the time the sale closed, the doll, purchased for $3, sold for $193.50. Overall, the Significant Objects Project saw more than 100 items collectively increase 2,706% in value. Which proves that stories can generate value in the real-world form of money, even from little pieces of junk. But is it true elsewhere? Would you be so irrational as the person who paid $190 for a "Figurine of St. Vralkomir (glass cover not included)"? Of course you would! We do it all the time. Consider the purchases you make, large or small. For every iPhone that Apple sells, it clears a profit of about $400. People know rationally that it's overpriced and that cheaper alternatives exist, yet they buy each new iPhone model by the millions. Why? Because of the innate human desire to engage with the emotions, people, ideas and experiences we associate with the item. As Glenn put it, "There is something hardwired in us to want things to be meaningful." This is the heart of branding. A brand is an illogical thing – it's a swirl of emotion and subconscious associations that carries our minds beyond rational analysis into the deeper wellsprings of status, identity, and dreams. Businesses with powerful brands understand that branding is anchored in storytelling: brands are birthed in original stories and nurtured continually in the ongoing narratives they share with their customers. Storytelling brings your brand alive by giving your customers personal connections to your people, products, and services. Many shoppers are hungry for the backstories of our business – stories about everything from why your business exists to where your products come from, and even how your franchisees take pride in being part of the phenomenon of your company. Use your marketing channels to highlight these human experiences, and invite your customers to respond with stories of their own. You'll find that the greater the meaning people associate with your business, the less concern they will have about the prices you charge. SELLING JUNK? TURN IT INTO GOLD WITH A STORY Mario Juarez Business Mindset RO Mario Juarez is an organizational consultant, coach, and motivational speaker. He focuses on helping organizations and individuals achieve better business results through strategic storytelling. An award-winning former journalist, Mario led a series of innovative communications initiatives at Microsoft before founding his company, StoryCo, which serves clients across a range of industries. Visit

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