Things and stories: What matters?

Posted by Rob Walker on July 2, 2008
Posted Under: Consumer Behavior,Things/Thinking

Okay, I owe you several posts, including saying something else nice about Nike, and also a follow-up on power possibly shifting to writers in the publishing game. I’ll get to it, I promise.

But first, one last line of thought on the meaning and value of objects, following the posts on the endowment effect and adaptation, and on “the tyranny of the heirloom.”

Clearly, some of the things we own mean more to us than others. An article I encountered a while ago (via Advertising Lab) summarizes some recent theorizing (and some past research) on the question of “product attachment,” which is defined as “the strength of the emotional bond a consumer experiences to a specific product.” The article focused in particular on “personalization” as a way to “stimulate the degree of product attachment.”

Example: Nike ID, where you can design your Nike, within certain parameters (swooshes are mandatory).

So here’s the argument:

By personalizing a product, an individual invests effort in the product. The outcome of the personalization process is that the consumer adds a personal touch to the product and, consequently, the product becomes more self-expressive of a person’s unique identity. Self-expression in turn has a positive effect on the degree of attachment to a product. For designers who wish to extend a product’s lifespan, it is thus a good strategy to incorporate the possibility of product personalization.

The core assertion is about narrative. Your product has a story: You designed it. You are part of your product’s story, and your product is part of your story. Hence, a “bond.”

I do not agree. I think that the excitement of picking colorways is just the sort of thing that creates an excitement that doesn’t last — that falls victim to adaptation, and quickly loses meaning.

Just stick to the realm of sneakers: I’ve talked to any number of sneaker freaks about their most prized possessions, and there’s certainly always a story. But the story is always about finding the sneakers — I remember hearing/reading one about some crazy pair in a weird store in Poland, or something ridiculous along those lines. (I can’t remember where I encountered this story or I’d link.)

By comparison, how good is the story of: “I did these on Nike ID”? Saying you got your sneakers off some web site, “personalized” or not, just isn’t much of a story. I mean, anybody can do that. How many people can find X specific pair in Y specific place after Z specific effort? Now that’s a story. It’s not just a story about the object, although it is in part. It’s a story about you.

I’m more interested in the point of view offered in Joshua Glenn’s adaptation for Designer Observer of the introduction to the book he co-edited with Carol Hayes, Taking Things Seriously. He writes that “many of us invest ordinary objects with … extraordinary significance,” but that that this significance rarely makes obvious sense. In fact it’s often “irrational.”

The more we talked about it, the more we agreed that almost everyone we know reverentially displays in his home or workspace at least one oddball, funny-looking, apparently worthless item as though it were a precious, irreplaceable artifact.

And Glenn happens to mention that one of the inspirations for the book they came up with was actually Bobbito’s sneaker-hunting tome, Where’d You Get Those?, a book that’s largely about why sneakers used to be a lot more special before the days of corporate-enabled personalization and the managed scarceness of the “limited edition” trend.

Making something personal is not a recent development that is bequeathed to the rest of us by big companies and new technology. Marketers and designers and “personalization” options don’t make objects special. They don’t even make them personal. That’s done by, you know, the person. That’s who decides, creates, invents the reason a thing means something. For reasons that are … personal.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

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