This story is about two journalists, Robert Walker and Joshua Glenn.

Rob and Josh were journalists at the New York Times. They covered the consumer issues and personal finance – that section of the paper that tells you which fridge to buy and what credit card to use.

One day, the two of them went to Starbucks. Somewhere to think up a new article together. Rob got a coffee - a double shot decaf latte with extra cinnamon sprinkling (this is New York after all) and a bottle of Evian.

And Josh ordered the same coffee, but then got some free water from the often sad jug of tap by the sugar and stirrers. The one you might get a slice of lemon in, if you’re lucky.

When they sat down, Josh wondered what had made Rob pay $2.17 for something that he had got for free.

What made his colleague pay for what is, in effect, just water - plain old hydrogen dioxide?

As marketers, we wouldn’t hesitate to say ‘brand’. We’d say Rob had paid for a premium brand and the arguably better water.

But as journalists, their instinct was to say ‘story’.

This started them thinking and talking. Asking, what is it people are actually buying? The product? Or the story behind it?

So they decided to look write an article that would explore the value of story. It made a welcome change from recommending mortgage providers.

The next step was to pitch the idea to their editor.

Probably one of those gruff types you see in films – a few extra pounds, balding, cigar chewing, with a degree on the wall and awards on the shelf. But definitely, most definitely, sweat patches.

Their editor looked over his reading glasses and told them – “Tell me something I don’t know. Or at least prove it!  Now get out o’ here and don’t come back till you got a real story!”

They left with their tails between their legs. And when they regrouped, they figured that if the man wanted proof, they’d give him proof. So they decided to conduct an experiment.


Their hypothesis was this:
“Stories are such a powerful driver of emotional value, that their effect on any given object’s subjective value can actually be measured objectively.”

In other words, can you measure the value of stories?
So this is what they did next…

First they went to thrift stores, charity shops, car boot sales, and flea markets.

They collected 100 insignificant objects. Trinkets. Flotsam. Junk. All unlovely and unloved.

Here are 5 of the 100 objects:

They spent 25 cents on a plastic banana.

Paid a whole $2 for a pottery cow.

One dollar for a plastic rhinoceros.

They really pushed the boat our for a porcelain shoe - a whopping $4.

And finally, for a battered second-hand builder’s mallet, they paid a handsome 33 cents.

On average they spent $1.28 per object. Or $128 dollars on one hundred worthless objects.

Next they recruited 100 talented storytellers - novelists, screenwriters, and comic book writers - asking each of them to write a very short story that lent new meaning to one of the objects.

Now they had 100 real objects
and 100 fictional stories.

Finally they listed each object for auction on eBay, putting the story in the item description.

The idea being that by y comparing the purchase price and the sale price, the they could measure the value of the story attached to the object.

Here’s one of our favourites:

On September 16th, 2031 at 2:35am, a temporal rift, a ‘tear’ in the fabric of time and space, will appear 16.5 meters above the area currently occupied by Jeffry’s Bistro, 123 East Ivinson Avenue, Laramie, Wyoming. Only the person wielding this mallet will be able to enter the rift unscathed. 

If this person then completes the 8 Labors of Worthiness, he or she will become The Supreme Ruler Of The Universe.

How much did someone pay for the mallet? The mallet (purchase price $0.33) sold for $71.  

The plastic banana bought for $0.25 sold for $76.

The $4 porcelain shoe fetched $77.

The $2 pottery cow went for $62.

And a dollar-store rhinoceros cost someone a whopping $57.

At the end of the experiment the junk they had bought for $128 sold for an astonishing $3,612.51.

At the end of the experiment the junk they had bought for $128 sold for an astonishing $3,612.51.

That’s a return
on investment of
(Why the caveat? It’s not quite the true ROI, as the stories came for free.)

The experiment has flaws because selling on eBay is not the same as selling in a charity shop. But nonetheless, the general effect is clear. Their mistake was telling.

Just because the stories weren’t true, doesn’t mean to say they don’t have real-world effects. The fictional stories had real value in dollars and cents, pounds and pence.

Branding is much like the storytelling in these experiments. They wrap physical goods and intangible services with significance. And charge otherwise functional things with emotion, meaning, and value.

It’s a stark reminder of how value works in our minds. When it comes to branded goods and services, we don’t just pay for a product or service, we pay for the story.
And the moral of this story for marketers is simple:
Story has the power to create value.
Find out how we can create value for your brand