Stories as Cultural Currency Suzanne Gibbs Howard

People share stories as a way to own experiences and reveal parts of themselves to others

Every product needs a story, as does every brand. The product’s origin. The creators’ ideals. Or a unique experience. These stories provide value.

Consumers are looking to share narratives as a way to express their knowledge, identity, status, and connections. As the DNA of viral marketing, these stories help people connect more deeply with a brand, a product, and others around them.

The Evidence — Stories from around the globe

Shoes make the man

A self-proclaimed sneaker geek, Carl has over 500 pairs in his collection. His current favorite? A pair of laser-etched Nikes he picked up in Japan. The detailing is subtle, but to those in the know, they have enormous value.

The specialty stores he visits on his travels, like Alife in New York or Kicks in Los Angeles, fly a bit below the radar. Knowing about them is all about making the right connections. To garner sneaker cred, Carl participates in online communities, sharing his knowledge and proclaiming his status through his collection.

Bragging rights on a global scale

A lot of people travel to Costa Rica to take surf lessons. But only a handful can learn from an internationally renowned pro during a weeklong, invite-only surf camp.

Lee, a 36-year-old investment banker from Manhattan, works hard to attract opportunities like this. She and her banking industry friends are adrenaline junkies, always on the hunt for the next exceptional experience.

Whether it’s indulging in local treatments at an exclusive $1200 per night spa in Thailand or bypassing the months-long waitlist at a trendy restaurant in Vegas, Lee gathers experiences to increase her social and professional profile.

Working in a typically male-dominated industry, she may not always get invited to go bear hunting with the guys in Alaska. But she can still impress the firm’s partners with her access to exclusive resorts in remote parts of the globe.

Discerning chickens cause a stir

In Andhra Pradesh, India, a region where clean water is scarce, one humble local farmer’s chickens are better off than most people. Searching for a way to differentiate his product, he took a big risk by starting to give his chickens purified water to drink.

Soon after the switch, the farmer’s chickens started growing faster, suffered less disease and produced more eggs. Overall, they were much healthier than the neighboring villagers’ chickens being fed water from the local well.

News about these high-quality chickens spread rapidly through the local community. Not only did the entrepreneurial farmer’s sales shoot up, but sales of purified water went through the roof.

Image credit: Jennifer Chong

Red Cross

With IDEO’s help, the Red Cross not only has a redesigned mobile center, they have a deeper connection with their donors. The key to altering the overall experience was to switch the focus from the recipients to the donors. Each donor now writes a postcard with their own personal story about why they were motivated to donate blood. These postcards are then posted on the wall at the center for others to read and be inspired by.

The perfect ingredient for self-expression

Lori’s cupboards overflow with obscure artisan food products. She spends a great deal of time scouring the Internet and boutique stores, focusing on details about ingredients and the artisans themselves. To deepen her knowledge, she also subscribes to online newsletters and attends food conferences.

Thirty and single, Lori isn’t that engaged with her career, so she has a lot of time and money to spend on food. And her friends reap the benefits. “All summer long, I entertain on the front porch,” she says. “My friends tell me I’m in the wrong line of work.”


Tesco is a company that emphasizes locally grown food as a link to safety. From health challenges like Mad Cow to environmental impacts due to importing, Tesco encourages regional sourcing whenever possible. And by finding local products across the UK and Ireland, they can connect not only with consumers’ sense of security, but also their national pride.

Shun knives

The shimmering pattern of a Shun knife’s layered steel blade is a distinctive visual clue that can elicit pangs of jealousy at a dinner party. This “Damascus look” tells a more evocative brand story about Japanese heritage and craft than anything Shun could ever express focusing on SUS410 High Carbon Stainless Steel or a VG10 core.



September 8, 2009

A real estate developer (my client) has been the driving force behind the revitilization of a neighborhood over the last ten years. They know, however, that a neighborhood belongs to its residents and workers, so a soon-to-be-launched website will hand over the reigns to those individuals. They’ll create an anticipated 80% of the online content by posting events, stories, tips and recommendations - making the online experience of the neighborhood as messy, unexpected and vibrant as the neighborhood itself.

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November 16, 2009

I think every village_perhaps even every post code_should have its own web site. A digital notice board/suggestions board…for nights when its just too cold to share this sort of thing at the other centre of the community_ the pub.

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August 22, 2010

It’s funny that you mention the “Damascus look” of Shun knives.  Every time I have gone to look for knives at a store and see a Shun knife, the wavy blade look always catches my eye, and subconsciously I assume there must be some great, historical story behind it—you’re right, they are telling a story, and I’m even imagining what it might be in my mind.

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October 15, 2010

I can really relate to Carl and his shoe obsession.  Fashion, and shoes imparticular are an expression of someone’s self and sense of style. As far as my shoe collection goes, I have over 250 pair of Nike’s, mostly Air Max’s and Jordan’s. Furthermore, I would love to travel to Costa Rica to live on the edge and get out of the corporate America setting I call home.

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Richard Strange

March 15, 2012

Selling a story works when you have a follower of that story.  When you can see other people following a story, you want to follow it as well.  Think about BBC News - people focus in on the “Most Read” - trusting other people to “weed out the rubbish” for them, so they’re left with the good bits.  In the same vein, could we have blogs from customers/employees posted to an organisation’s website and then that video rated - the most popular videos are the ones you use in your advertising campaign for the year - encourage the video to “go viral”!

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